The article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today
Sometimes a new expression comes along which brilliantly and perfectly encapsulates an idea or a new trend. One such term is “special snowflake”, which is used to refer to those people who consider themselves unique and precious, fragile, delicate and untouchable – you know, just like a snowflake.
And while it may seem like a compliment, actually it’s not, because it is used in a dry, ironic kind of way to describe those entitled sort of people who think the sun shines out of their backside, when in reality, they are (probably to their horror) no different to everyone else.
A hilarious spot-on description is provided by the urban dictionary: “ A malady affecting a significant portion of the world’s population wherein the afflicted will demand special treatment, conduct themselves with a ludicrous, unfounded sense of entitlement, and generally make the lives of everyone around them that much more miserable.
The danger of this disease is that the sufferers rarely, if ever, know that they have contracted it, and continue about their merry way under the assumption that EVERYONE ELSE is the problem.
This condition, if left untreated, can radically alter the carrier’s demeanor, to include any of the following: a complete devolution to child-like behavior, temper tantrums, and/or fits of narcissistic rage.”
I’m sure many reading this will be nodding with immediate recogntion of someone they know who exactly fits that description. The phrase is not just restricted to adults, however. Because let’s face it, an entitled adult does not magically sprout like a mushroom out of nowhere. Usually this belief in one’s own self-importance has its roots in childhood. When it comes to children, these “special little snowflakes” have always been made to feel they are not only the centre of the world, but the entire universe and beyond.
OK, I know, I know. All parents think their children are special, and so they should, because having children can be a wonderful experience.
But in the eagerness to constantly reassure their children how much they are loved, inevitably and almost predictably, over the last 20 years or so, ideas about parenting have swung the other way. We have gone from whacking kids upside the head (which was very wrong and damaging and something I don’t agree with), to falling over ourselves in behaviour which is almost akin to child worship. From a time when adults would tell children to go outside and play, leaving them pretty much to their own devices, we have come to a point where today’s parents have to keep social diaries filled to the brim with ‘play dates’ and innumerable children’s parties and countless extra-curricular activities. I understand that the world is a much more dangerous place, and frankly in Malta there are very little “outside” areas left for them to play in any more, but should we really be structuring every single minute of a child’s life for them in this way?
Left to their own imagination, and without the need for an adult to take over, children do manage to come up with ideas of how to play, making up games, coming up with rules and generally learning how to figure things out for themselves. This is a crucial part of learning, something which cannot be taught in a standard classroom situation, because group play is how they learn to get along with others, using social skills and negotiation, as they start to understand the concepts of sharing and how to deal with losing (and winning). When there are squabbles, as always happens, the worst thing an adult can do is to interfere, because even though the instinctive urge is to protect one’s child from being rejected, the ability to build a coping mechanism is also a skill which the playground can teach. People who have become known as ‘helicopter parents’, who hover around their children all the time, ready to step in at the slightest hint that little Joey is being treated unfairly, are not doing their child any favours. Of course, there are instances where parents must take action, such as if the child is being severely bullied or physically hit, but normal schoolyard teasing and petty arguments are not something which need to be turned into a drama.
There have been drastic changes in parenting styles over several generations (not just in Malta but globally) as a result of smaller families and a better standard of living. 70 years ago, a woman with eight children to raise definitely had no time to “waste” making sure that her whole brood was being paid attention to. It was an interminable cycle of shopping, cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, laundry and ironing in between bathing all the kids and making sure everyone was fed. The older children looked out for the younger ones, and everyone was expected to help out with chores. Homework was your duty and something you did by yourself.
It was just a matter of “getting on with it”, and somehow the kids grew up and took care of themselves as soon as they were able to. Ask anyone who came from such a large family and they will tell you there was no time for anyone to be spoilt, because there were just too many of them.
That kind of large household is practically impossible today – even having three kids is considered to be a “large” family, and the changes in dynamics is reflected accordingly. With more time to focus on one, perhaps two children, with more disposable income, with all the appliances available to cut down on time spent on housework, the attention of some parents has zeroed in on their offspring with an intensity which verges on the overpowering and suffocating.
The problem with creating a generation of special little snowflakes is that they are not being given the room and space to grow psychologically and emotionally. Too much fussing over and pampering does no one any good, least of all children who, after basking for so long in all that constant attention, are going to have a great big shock the minute they step out of the bubble which is home. And while I can understand the need to instill self-confidence in children, there is a fine line between that, and an inflated sense of self-importance which can lead to, let’s face it, a child turning into an obnoxious brat. The result is that all these tiny snowflakes, all of whom are convinced of their own ‘specialness’ are all going to meet up in that microcosm of society called school. Suddenly, they are going to be asked to do things for themselves, to follow instructions, to pay attention to (and obey) what the teacher says, and just basically get their act together.
What?! Huh?! How can this be? I can pretty much understand the bewilderment of an overly-mollycoddled child who is all at once faced with situations where there is no-one there ready to spring into action doing everything for him/her. Having lived the first few years of life being absolutely dependent and waited on hand and foot, this is a strange new world for the child and the reaction is probably one of utter blankness. Coupled with the special snowflake mindset (and let us not forget the over-use of iPads and mobiles at too young an age), it is a recipe for disaster for teachers who try to stimulate and encourage their pupils.
And if having too many snowflakes in one classroom can be a teacher’s nightmare, it becomes even worse when the child grows into an adult and has to face the working world and personal relationships. Can you imagine all those delicate snowflakes bumping against one another, each one expecting adulation and demanding entitlement? The whole thing is bound to end up as one big, mushy, sludgy puddle of melted snow.