Cancel Culture

Not every child can be ‘special’

A whole generation has been infantilised into believing themselves unique, says Siobhan O’Neill. But what have they done to deserve their accolades?

In today’s age, everyone is a blogger, a model, a superstar. But are they really? Normal people still have meaningful lives, even if they’re not making a mark on the world stage. It’s time to teach our kids that it’s ok to be average...

NOTE: First published on October 7, 2020.

Today, I decided that I’m not fully recognised for my awesomeness. I feel like a princess, but no one treats me like a princess. I told my family that from now on I want them to refer to me as ‘princess’ when they talk to, or about me. They looked bemused. I’m not sure they believe I’m a princess or that I should be described as one. They might humour me to be polite.

I got the idea from a primary school reception class teacher. She would don a crown when she was busy; it was a sign the children should not approach her. This kind of signalling of her specialness and superiority to the children struck me as vain, pretentious and ill-judged. How could she form a connection with people she appeared to look down on?

But, interestingly, her behaviour mimicked the children in her charge. She was signalling in their language – the language of dress-up. ‘I’m special’, she was screaming.

As an infant you can be whoever you want to be simply by imagining it and wearing the costume. But this woman was in her late twenties.

A whole generation of young people have been infantilised. Well-meaning parents have lauded their every scribble, protected them from every risk, ensured everyone got a medal on sports day, told them over and over how exceptional they were. But what have they really done to earn it?

Most young people can’t be a Malala – an activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, or a Greta, saving the world from climate change. Not even a Kardashian. How can they distinguish themselves from their peers whom they think are more pretty, more popular, more sporty or cleverer?

The most recent way seems to identifying as trans or non-binary, à la Sam Smith or Kate Tempest. Gender identity is the newest  way to make yourself stand out from the crowd.

Simply being gay doesn’t make you special or different anymore. The battles for gay equality have largely been won. Few people now bat an eyelid at same-sex partnerships – even on Strictly.

It’s puzzling that talented young people have felt the need to announce their very normal non-conformity with new names and pronouns. Arguably, they help make it cool and fashionable for the kids who are a little goofy, a little nerdy, awkward and traditionally lower in the social pecking order, to join a new and special community.

They can imagine a new gender (depending on who you believe there’s more than 100), dress up, wear the costume and command people refer to them in ways that make them feel unique.

But should we encourage that behaviour?

As parents who’ve followed Larkin’s prediction that your parents fuck you up,  isn’t it better to correct the mistake and help our kids live in the real world? Our infantilisation of them has crippled them emotionally. They’re no longer robust or resilient. They can’t cope with being normal, average, and surrounded by the airbrushed world of social media they feel unaccomplished and unimportant.

I know this because of the language that they use. An apparent need for others to ‘validate’ them, to make them feel ‘safe’, for people to acknowledge their special ‘existence’. Just as we did as parents when they were small.

But the real world is full of danger and worse still, anonymity. Most people live unremarkable lives of minimal significance – even if the picture they paint on Instagram is of them ‘living their best life’. Much of it is enhanced or entirely fake.

It’s time to teach our kids that it’s ok to be average. Normal people still have meaningful lives, even if they’re not making a mark on the world stage. People make a difference every day in their communities, in their jobs, for other people, without needing recognition or validation.

Almost everyone has their time to shine at least once, but it usually takes hard work and commitment, not compelled speech and special pronouns.

By building themselves a distinct community with a particular language and dress code, they risk alienating others. Like that primary school teacher, how will they form relationships with people they look down on? I’ve tried hard to understand what ‘non-binary’ means, but have only heard it described in terms of what it’s not, never what it actually is. So far as I can tell we’re all non-binary; existing day to day somewhere on a scale of gender norms.

It’s no wonder then that some people struggle to validate something so vague and amorphous, yet saying so publicly brings down the wrath and ire and accusations of bigotry from gender activists. Like petulant, frightened children, they lash out, making it difficult to empathise with their position.

I have no doubt that life for anyone struggling with real dysphoria is hard, and they should be supported and accepted to live their lives in whatever way makes them feel comfortable. I do use preferred pronouns to be polite.

But there’s a generation of confused kids calling themselves trans and non-binary and it’s not because they’re struggling with their gender identity, it’s because they’re struggling with their social identity and are desperate for attention. Put a crown on and feel superior, call me they/them and make me brave and unique.

I think we need to show young people there are better, more meaningful ways to feel good about themselves and to stand out from the crowd. Step away from social media, get out in the real world and make a difference. Make art, volunteer, pick litter – anything would be an improvement on ranting about rights and inclusions that already exist.

As for me, I’m not sure I’ll pass as a princess. The best I can manage is a Brass in Pocket earworm. ‘I’m going to make you notice… I’m special, so special, I’m going to have some of your attention, give it to me.’ A non-binary anthem it turns out.

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Siobhan O'Neill

Siobhan O’Neill is a freelance writer, content designer and research analyst working across a range of media and platforms.

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  1. This is very true. I do wonder what all the parent-sharing says to a child, as parents try on an almost daily basis to share with the world about how exceptional their kids are. I feel that we have totally lost sight of the fact that it is our job to love our children even though they are mediocre, typical and ordinary. Our love for them should be the same whether they get 4/10 or 10/10 in spelling. Our love for them should say I love you when you unsurprisingly like the stuff that all the other kids like. I love you when you get 5/10 (don’t hassle the teacher either by the way. It’s not her fault your kid is average, and indeed it’s not a fault at all). I love you even though you appear to have no particular talent. If you do not change the world or move mountains -I love you. You are plain -I love you. The constant framing of everything a child does as special might convey that love is dependent on those things. But whose job is it to have your back and think you are fucking great no matter how ordinary you are, and to truly love your unremarkable, mediocre self? Just love them the way they are, and teach them to have a moral compass.

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