I was at an Alabama elementary school when I saw a banner above a mirror on which was printed, in 10-inch letters, "You are now looking at one of the most special people in the whole wide world!"
I knew the special person in question wasn't me, so I assumed this is what the school's personnel wanted each child to believe.
This is, of course, a bald-faced lie. The truth is, no one is special.
By virtue of being human, everyone is faulted -- in theological terminology, sinful. That is human nature, and the best parenting in the world will not lift a child above his or her nature.
Good parenting -- a balance of unconditional love and firm, unconditional discipline -- equips a child with a sense of social obligation (respect for others) strong enough to suppress his or her narcissistic impulses. In most situations, that is, but never all.
The child develops self-respect as a consequence of parents who guide him properly in this regard, not by telling him he's special.
Grandma and Grandpa -- the typical parents of not so long ago -- loved their children, and certainly felt each of them was special. But Grandma and Grandpa wisely did not want one of their children thinking he or she was special. Grandma and Grandpa valued humility.
They knew that pride is authentic only when a person is fundamentally humble. Authentic pride is directed not at the self, but at specific accomplishments. Grandma and Grandpa knew that false pride -- the delusion that one's self is special -- could easily lead to antisocial behavior, because the prideful (vain) person feels above reproach and is able to rationalize sociopathic outbursts.
Beginning in the '60s, parenting "experts" began telling parents to direct their energies toward nurturing something they called "self-esteem."
I've been a critic of this notion. Invariably, when I write on the subject, someone will write me back, suggesting that I misunderstand what self-esteem is all about. True self-esteem is a feeling of self-worth based on accomplishments, they point out.
I understand the argument they're making, but it turns on itself. If it's not the self we're talking about, but the good things the self does, then let's not call it self-esteem, and while we're at it, let's get rid of the word esteem as well. The term "responsible" will more than suffice.
The world would be a better, steadily improving place if adults concentrated on simply teaching children to be responsible -- to have compassion and respect for others (social responsibility), to do their best (task responsibility), and to do the right thing even when no one else is watching (personal responsibility).
Above all else, I suggest we need to bring an emphasis on teaching humility back into the child-rearing equation. There is, after all, nothing more obnoxious that someone who thinks he's special, and nothing more charming than a person who's more interested in you than in having you know about him.
I encourage the well-intentioned principal of that Alabama elementary school to tear down the "You're special" banners and replace them with banners that read "Do something special for someone else today, just because you should."
John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at http://www.rosemond.com/parenting on the World Wide Web.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.