I wonder if Mr. Rogers had it wrong. As a collective humanity, maybe we are not all lumped together in one “You’re Special” category.
The “every-one-of-you-is-so-special” mantra was a constant drumbeat for the Gen Xers, Gen Ys, and now Millenials and Digital Natives. Please forgive me here: I fault my generation of parents for not instilling accountability in our children. We are not across-the-board special at everything we do. The whole team does not get trophies, and not every player is MVP. How did we go from honoring authentic accomplishments to everyone is a winner, no matter what their behavior?
We have allowed several generations of truancy for our younger generations when accountability was supposed to be taught. We allowed them to skip this particular lesson, and parents today—and I also take responsibility here—really deserve the F, not their offspring. And more alarming to me is that, with the lost lesson of accountability, we have accepted the pervasive erosion of human decency and empathy for one another.
Human behavior fascinates me. To examine our motivations and decisions is something I ponder every day, whether I am in one of my psychology classes or in the grocery line in Publix; I watch and listen for cues that add to my already piqued curiosity.
A few days ago, I was a speaker at a local organization. My talk had three components: Attention, The F-Word, and Reframing. If we look at psychology, we know that the mother of all negative emotion is Fear (the F-word). It comes in many different flavors and it is a very powerful influencer on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior: anger, blame, guilt, revenge, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and greed, to name a few.
If we are conscious about our thoughts and feelings—that is, we give our mindful attention to and identify what we feel in the pit of our stomach or abdomen—we can examine them and reframe how we choose to think, feel, and act. Attribution Theory describes how we frame our experiences in life. It is the looking at the glass half-full/empty choice.
And this is, I believe, is one of the biggest contributors to why we are sometimes barely decent to one another. We let the four letter F-word, Fear, be the order of the day.
And I get it. We live in uncertain times; we have war; we seem to have more disease; family structures are weak; divorce; many have 3rd degree PTSD from 9/11; the economy is weak; joblessness is high. Our mental health is not healthy.
The common denominator in all of this is Fear. And as parents, we have not stepped back to reframe nor looked at the generations before us to scrutinize enough and ask: “How did they do it? What did they do to live through the Depression and World War?"
Our history books and ancestral stories are rife with stories of courage, hope, and strength which overrode fear. Shame on me/my generation for dropping the ball.
Yet being the Pollyanna that I am, I truly believe it is not too late. Let’s rally to be role models of accountability and empathy by not passing along our own fears and uncertainties to our young. As my friend Laura would say: “That ain’t right.”
Marty Seligman, the “father” of positive psychology and wonderful mentor to me, wrote one of his many books titled: Learned Optimism. It countered the learned helplessness—that behavior that people adopt when they shirk responsibility and accountability and as a collective whole, we let them off the hook. We give our children and co-workers the very clear message that it is okay to be disrespectful, to not follow through, because someone else will pick up your slack. No worries. We do not want you to feel badly about this because, after all, remember that you are special. Instead, hold onto the feeling that you are special.
And we have backed ourselves into the proverbial corner. How the heck did we get here? How have we managed to successfully (or not, in my opinion) raise generations of people who have mastered the art of learned helplessness to the degree that they completely override most people like Refrigerator Perry on the 2 yard line?
People who have black belts in learned helplessness are very poor problem solvers. They have one mode of operation, only one setting on a dial – and it is a default setting that is helpless. Feeling helpless is a huge feeling of disempowerment. Why would we want this for our children or, for that matter, one another?
Ask: “Do I model empathy and decency to everyone I encounter? Am I gracious in the way that I speak to people?” If not, why not? And if your child, teen, or adult child is not, then it’s time to get to work.
Instead of hiring a lawyer to march into the Principal’s office on a Monday morning to bail out your kid for using drugs in the parking lot on campus (and this happens often), get some help for YOUR kid: find a treatment center, get into counseling, have discussions ... you are responsible. And if your kid is 35 and has moved back home to live with you, well then, maybe you didn’t do your homework. It’s never too late to go back to school.
And when our offspring makes us so proud that the insides of our guts are bursting with joy, because he or she was kind to someone who was bullied, or risked losing a job to stand up to a boss who was harassing a co-worker, then you can haul out the trophy and say with complete authenticity: "You’re Special.”