Should We Tell Kids They’re Special?

photo credit: I am Special via photopin (license)
photo credit: I am Special via photopin (license)

“Dad, am I special?”

What seems at first glance to be a question with an easy, straightforward answer from a parent (“Yes son, of course you’re the most specialiest specialty in the history of special!”), suddenly wasn’t so simple. If you think about it, that question is fraught with unexpected complications and potential repercussions depending on your answer. As a result I had to think long and hard about how I responded.

Some parents are recoiling in horror at this very moment because I didn’t automatically and exuberantly tell my son how special he is. I get it. However, what message are we really sending to our kids when we resort to that?

They say all kids are special. Well, if that’s true, then doesn’t “special” lose meaning? If every single child is special, does ordinary become extinct or nonexistent? Don’t we lose the perspective necessary to make special a distinction if everyone falls into that category?

But more important than that, aren’t we creating dangerous levels of entitlement? Hey, there’s nothing wrong with positive reinforcement for hard work or a job well done. But I’m sorry, you can’t convince me that constantly telling children they are special at every turn doesn’t create a the potential for an unbelievably entitled generation of kids.

Unfortunately, I only need to look at my oldest son for a real-life example.

A few years ago, I played a trick on him and convinced him I ate all of his Halloween candy. Well, the Jimmy Kimmel Show saw it, liked it, and used it. Suddenly Will was watching himself broadcast to millions of people. They even used his image as the thumbnail on the YouTube video, which has been seen by nearly 40 million people.

I was really excited and I went on and on about how special this was, and how special he was to appear on television and be seen by millions of people. Then the local media found out, and we were featured in newspapers and even had a segment on the local TV news. Soon Will was telling his friends, other parents, teachers, and everyone he could that he was a TV star. I just thought it was really cute and I encouraged it, because damn — it’s JIMMY FREAKING KIMMEL!

About a week after all the hoopla, I took Will on the train into Boston for an event. When we walked on board the crowded car, he was smiling and looking around at everyone. I just thought it was because he loved trains, but after a few minutes his smile faded and he started to get grumpy. I asked him what was wrong and his answer hit me like a brick.

“Why aren’t these people saying hi to me, dad? Don’t they know I’m special because I’m famous from the TV?”

Oh. Shit.

It took quite a bit of doing to walk that one back. I just didn’t realize what was happening, but what did I expect? I spent a solid week telling him how special he is, so how could I be surprised when he believed every single word of it and expected other people to treat him that way too?

I spent a lot of time after that talking less about being special, and more about being privileged. As a writer and blogger, I get some nice perks and things sent to me by companies. But now, when that happens, we spend a ton of time letting our kids know we’re lucky to be getting these things, and it’s not the norm. That they’re not getting them because they’re special, but because companies are advertising. I tell Will he’s no better or worse than any other kid in any other part of the world. However, he’s luckier than most and he needs to try to understand and appreciate that privilege without thinking he’s better than anyone else because of it.

I’m not supporting the degradation of kids or calling for the total elimination of positive reinforcement. Sometimes it takes a teacher/parent/friend showing a special interest in kids to make them feel worthy and propel them to success. However, I don’t want my son thinking he’s special just because he’s been told that all his life. Because make no mistake, far too many children fall into that category. Just ask this guy.

I will tell my sons they were born into a certain amount of privilege that will aid their ability to be great, should they concentrate their efforts and abilities. I will tell them I believe in them and support them wholeheartedly. I will tell them they have great potential that can only come to fruition with hard work and perseverance.

But that doesn’t make them special. It makes them like millions of other kids all over the world. It shouldn’t be a bad thing to tell kids that, either.

So how do I answer the question with which I began this piece? I tell my son he’s special to me and always will be. But other than that, no. He’s no inherently better, worse, or more special than any other kid.

If I do my job right, that message won’t destroy his fragile self-esteem — it’ll push him to work harder and be less self-absorbed.

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When Our Dragons Leave the Nest

dragonsmapedited

It took me a bit to figure out why I was having such a visceral reaction to the Netflix Originals series Dragons: Race to the Edge. But when I finally figured it out, it made perfect sense.

This DreamWorks animated show is related to the feature films, but takes place between the first and second movies. Whereas the first How to Train Your Dragon was Hiccup finding himself discovering how to interact with people in his world, the show takes place a few years later. Hiccup and the dragon riders are older — well into their teenage years — and teeming with youthful pride, arrogance, and that unavoidable yearning for independence.

As you can see from the map above (taken at DreamWorks during an event last month), the center is their home island of Berk. When the first movie started, that hunk of rock was all Hiccup knew. It was his world and his entire universe. But after befriending dragons and using them as a means to explore, their world got a lot bigger.

That’s great for my 7-year-old, who binge-watched this as his summer vacation started and marveled at all the new adventures the characters were having and all the fresh discoveries of new lands and types of dragons. He wants to be Hiccup and Astrid and Fishlegs, out there in the brave new world making important and exciting discoveries. And who can blame him?

As for me, I found myself commiserating with Stoic, Hiccup’s dad. Why? Because he was struggling with conflicting emotions regarding his son going off into the world. He’s a protector, and that protection has always come by gathering everyone together on the island of Berk to keep everyone safe. Safe at home. Safe from harm.

But even in fictional worlds set in a time long since gone, parents still struggle with letting go.

I realized I was relating to this show because the kids (and the dragons) are literally leaving the nest. Stoic is watching his son leave home and establish his own identity with equal parts pride and worry. For parents, the toughest part of kids growing up is letting them stand on their own two feet and losing the ability to protect them at all times.

So as Hiccup and gang explore dangerous new places, deal with conflict both internally as well as taking on enemies, and learn to survive on their own, I just keep looking at Will and wondering how I’ll cope.

Right now his map is our small New England town. But as he gets his proverbial dragon wings, that circle will grow. Breakneck bog will be the next town over when he can ride his bike on his own. His driver’s license will take him to SnowWraith Island with friends. And it’ll be the far-flung Eret’s Island if he decides to go far away for college and life afterward.

Will watches Dragons with wide-eyed enthusiasm and longing for adventure. I watch it through Stoic’s eyes. The eyes of a parent. Eyes that get occasionally moist with a mix of pride and worry at the thought of my son striking out on his own, outside of my direct protection.

I’d feel a lot better if he could take Toothless to college.

Toothless!!! #dreamworksdragons

A video posted by Aaron Gouveia (@daddyfiles) on

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I was compensated by Netflix for writing this post in the form of an all-expense paid trip to DreamWorks Animation in California. Also, as part of the StreamTeam, I received free Netflix for a year and an iPad Mini. However, as always, my opinions are 100% my own. Check out Netflix on Facebook.

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I Thought My Son Was Never Going to Talk

sam

Seven months ago, I was petrified Sam was never going to talk.

We were at his 15-month check-up and the doctor asked how many words Sam had in his repertoire. She didn’t ask IF he could speak, mind you, but how many words he could say. I immediately looked down at the floor in shame, because Sam didn’t have any words. Not a one. Zero.

And despite her assurances that he was just a little bit behind, I was POSITIVE something was cataclysmically wrong with him.

Less than a week later, we had Early Intervention come in and evaluate him. I had heart palpitations with each test he wasn’t passing. Failure to turn the jack-in-box crank? He’ll never graduate high school. Couldn’t say “mama” or “dada?” There goes college. By the end of it all, I was in a full-blown panic as I envisioned Sam at 30, living in our basement and still unable to utter basic syllables.

When the EI folks finished, they said Sam was slightly speech-delayed, but not so much that he qualified for Early Intervention. But I only heard those two words: speech delayed. And I was crushed at having somehow failed my son.

Yes, I realize how crazy I was being. Now. But then, in that moment, it was very real and very overwhelming.

We have certain standards kids are supposed to meet at certain times, and they’re hard for me to ignore. I know I’m not alone. These concrete milestones our children are supposed to meet are set in a sea of fluidity, and don’t seem to take into account the individual nature of children. We know enough to tell ourselves “everyone goes at his/her own pace” and “they all get there eventually,” but if your child is on the slower side then those markers are always there, blinking in the background, taunting you mercilessly.

It’s problematic if you’re someone who did everything early and generally had things come easy to him. It’s even worse if your firstborn was the same way — walking, talking, and putting sentences together well ahead of the curve. In that instance, you love milestones. Because who doesn’t enjoy looking at an achievement in the rear view mirror?

So you start wondering what’s wrong with this one. Why isn’t this one early, or at least on time? Did I leave the TV on too long and damage his brain? I didn’t read to him enough, did I? Why can’t he be more like his brother??

And suddenly you realize what an utter and unreasonable asshole you’re being.

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Seven months later and 8 days shy of his second birthday, I look back at myself and shake my head. Especially as this plays out in the car on a daily basis.

“Hi dada!”
“Dada, wheels on bus!”
“Dada, you see choo-choo?”
“Dad, what’s that?”
“Thank you, dada.”

Words. So many words. So many new words every day. I come home from work and discover he’s added two or three more to his expanding vocabulary. They didn’t arrive on the generally accepted timetable, but they came nonetheless. They came when Sam was ready. They came exactly when they were supposed to.

I know I worry because I care. Because these kids are the most important thing in the world to me. I’m sure that’s true of most neurotic parents who unnecessarily sweat the small stuff. I’m also a firm believer that if you don’t feel like a complete fool at least a couple of times a month, you’re probably not a parent.

Kids are not identical assembly line automatons. They are not here to validate us by meeting arbitrary deadlines that serve as parental bragging rights on social media. I know this. Most parents know this. We just need to keep it at the forefront of our mind more often, and not fall victim to unnecessary worrying about things that almost always work themselves out.

Seven months ago I thought my son was never going to talk. Now? I’m worried he’ll never stop.

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11 Things Dads Should NEVER Say in the Delivery Room

mjdeliveryroom

The delivery room is a strange, scary, and spectacular place. There are mystical wonders to behold, a multitude of wires attached to your loved one getting ready to deliver, and a cacophony of beeping coming from unfamiliar machines that leave you unable to decipher good from bad. It is where miracles happen, memories are made, and life is brought forth into the world.

Unless she kills you right there in the birthing suite because you’re one of the brainless jackasses who says something irreversibly stupid at the worst possible moment.

Having talked to L&D nurses, read humorous (yet cringe-inducing) accounts of ridiculous things said inside the delivery room, and having written about a semi-related topic in the past, I thought it best to get specific. In my ongoing quest to help fathers (not just fathers but anyone who plans on being in the delivery room) improve, I think this list is important simply to keep people alive.

Everyone processes emotions differently in stressful situations, and many people (myself included) resort to attempts at humor as a defense mechanism. However, your latest pun might not be well accepted as the mother of your child is attempting to pass something the size of a watermelon through a hole the size of a lemon.

I thought long and hard, consulted a few mothers in my life, and came up with this list. And I added animated GIFs so hopefully the women reading this will laugh instead of instantly try to murder their partners who undoubtedly said one or more things listed below.

Continue reading 11 Things Dads Should NEVER Say in the Delivery Room

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IBM Now Offers 6 Weeks Paid Paternity Leave. And I’m Taking Every Bit of It

paternity

Convincing companies to offer paid paternity leave is challenging. But convincing male employees to actually take it and use all that’s available to them? Much tougher.

My third child is due in September. I just found out my employer, IBM, changed its policy and is now giving dads and domestic partners six weeks of paid parental leave. This is excellent news — both for me personally and dads as a whole. Yet when I announced the good news on social media, one of the first things someone said to me was “That’s cool. But you’re not gonna use all six weeks, right? No way I could get away with that.”

And I realized how far we still have to go on this issue.

While 89% of men say employers should offer paid paternity leave, according to the Boston College Center for Work and Family, those men don’t always take it. In most cases that’s because only 12% of US companies offer paid paternity leave, and very few people these days can afford to take unpaid FMLA. But even when companies make fully paid paternity leave available to employees, many men are still hesitant. Unfortunately, they have good reasons.

Surveys have shown men who actively and publicly prioritize family over work are subject to pay decreases, demotions, mistreatment on the job, and even job loss. Risking that career success and the income that provides for your family is scary, especially for men who are the sole breadwinner (as I am). Add to that a culture that says men are only men if they work their fingers to the bone and taking time off for family matters is for women, and you have a potentially menacing situation.

But I don’t care and I’m willing to risk it. I hope dads at IBM (and elsewhere) feel the same, because it’s worth the risk. Why? In order for paid parental leave to become commonplace, men who have it available to them need to take it — all of it — and make an unequivocally bold statement that family comes first.

With more dads than ever seeking to be hands-on parents and simultaneously feeling the pangs that work/life conflicts bring, now is the time for action.

We need to take all of our available leave because studies show fathers who are heavily involved right from their child’s birth, are much more likely to stay involved as time passes. And children with involved fathers have been shown to perform better in school, avoid drugs and alcohol, get arrested less, and delay sexual activity.

Furthermore, paternity leave doesn’t just benefit men. In fact, its biggest beneficiaries might be women.

When men are doing more household and childcare duties at home, it frees up women to reenter the workforce and cut down on the so called “Second Shift” working mothers endure. In fact, a mother’s future earnings increase by 7% for every month of leave taken by the father. So while dads take a more egalitarian role at home, they are actually helping to strengthen the number of women in the workforce while simultaneously doing their part to bridge the gender wage gap.

Lastly, it’s not just people who benefit from paternity leave. Companies that offer paid leave to parents might struggle while the employees are gone, but happier workers stay at their jobs and the savings via employee retention far exceeds any short-term difficulties. This also enables companies to attract top-tier talent when positions do have to be filled, as many workers clamor to be part of an organization that invests in the happiness and well-being of its rank and file workers.

So now I have six weeks of paid leave I can take in September. Although my team and managers are very supportive, there’s always a chance I could face some unspoken penalty for taking my full leave. There’s a chance this impacts my bonus or my being promoted.

But you know what? It’s worth it.

Within minutes of finding out about the policy change, I emailed my managers and requested the full six weeks off. I might take it all at once after the baby is born, or I might stagger it. But either way, I’m using it.

I’m going to bond with my baby. I’m going to wake up with my wife for every feeding. I’m going to learn which cry means “I’m hungry” and which cry means “change my diaper.” I’m going to help my wife with our other two kids, including my oldest who could have his first day of 2nd grade while we’re in the delivery room. I’m going to be as involved as possible because dads are equal partners in parenting, not glorified babysitters.

I’m going to take my leave as publicly as possible. I’m going to write about it and chronicle it on these pages. I’m going to talk to my male coworkers whose partners are expecting, and urge them to take all six weeks too. As one of a select few who have the privilege of taking this time off, I feel that’s my duty. I view it as my responsibility to help make paternity leave normal instead of shameful. To be proud of being a family man instead of doing it on the sly or worried it might cost me my job.

More companies like IBM are being progressive in offering paid leave, and that’s great. Now it’s up to dads to step up to the plate and make our priorities known. So if you don’t have paid leave, advocate for it. And if you have it, take it. All of it.

You won’t regret it.

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For more on this important topic, these two recently released books are absolutely essential. And better yet, both authors are friends of mine. And damn good fathers to boot.

The Working Dad's Survival Guide by Scott Behson
The Working Dad’s Survival Guide by Scott Behson
All In, by Josh Levs
All In, by Josh Levs
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