Parenting

Published on March 5th, 2019 | by Mary Volmer

15

You Are Not The Special One: A Letter To My Son

The other day, romping through the living room, stuffed kitty under one arm, you stopped, raised your little chin like Nero and declared: “I am the special one!” Floppy blond hair, brown eyes wide, a pint-sized superhero, minus the cape. The performance should have been funny. It was funny. Your dad and I laughed.

So, why does my chest feel tight? Why this dread? You’re always bringing home words, songs and habits (good and bad) from school. And really, shouldn’t every six-year-old have the right to stand among loved ones and declare with the confidence of the chosen: “I am the special one!” Children learn better soon enough. 

But that’s not true, is it? Watching Judge Kavanaugh’s tantrums on television last fall I knew it wasn’t true. Not all children learn better. There, on the television, I saw what happens when a privileged boy, like you, grows up believing he is the special one.  

Such a boy grows into someone who views others as allies or obstacles to a success measured in money, power and popularity; a man who remains—at seventeen, twenty, forty, fifty—as deluded about his own relative worth as you, age six. A petulant man clinging to the lie that he earned advantages he was born into, and that people not born into the same advantages—or the same religion, ethnicity, nationality or gender—deserve less regard.

I don’t wish for you a life of such spiteful delusion. You are a special one. That’s true. You will always be my special one. But you are not the special one.

Don’t strive for glory, money, power, or prestige at the cost of other people. Your race, religion, sexuality, and gender entitles you to nothing more than a place with everyone else.

Now, I have been known to overthink, well, everything. I hear the voices of my peers who scoff, “Good God, Mary. He’s only six. A special, my special, the special one. He doesn’t understand the difference.”

But you understand more than we give you credit for. At three, you knew the difference between dozens of wooden train engines. At four, you knew your letters and the sounds they made. Now you read tones of voice, expressions, postures. You know how to make me mad and to laugh. You correct me if I fudge a word in your favorite books. You know, because we have taught you, how to say “please” and “thank you.” You know it’s wrong to hit and lie and cheat, though you may not understand why. And, conscious or not of the differences between articles, you did say “the” special one. Conscious or not, you may already have begun to internalize and integrate this lie in the way you see the world and your place within it. 

According to Aristotle, moral virtues are learned by habit and practice. He suspected what psychologists have confirmed, that habits of youth make an enormous difference, perhaps all the difference, in the way a person lives their life. Harmless—funny even—as your performance was, I see it was also a kind of practice, a habituation, a mimicry of the selfish and self-centered posturing you’ve seen not only on playground, but in grown white men on TV.

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Daniel Ruyter

That scares me. And thing is, I know it scares you too. Because if you are not the special one, then what are you? How do you deserve to be treated?

Two nights ago I woke to find you rigid with fear at the side of my bed. You’d had a bad dream, a reoccurring nightmare. A man with a gun came into your school and shot you. I could do nothing to comfort you. In the newsfeed of your life, this kind of violence has become ordinary. The killer is almost always a man with a knife, a gun, a bomb. A man desperate to prove himself the special one. Whether he believes himself entitled or chosen, it doesn’t matter—this man, some other mother’s son, is victim and symptom of the same delusion, a false dichotomy that divides people into those of worth and those worthless.

That’s why I’m writing, to tell you that it does not have to be this way. You don’t have to live this way. I’d rather overreact now than wake in ten or twenty years to discover you have become a victim or disciple of this brutal mentality.

Be a special one. Open your heart to empathy and the door will swing both ways. Your worth does not depend on others being made less. Fulfillment, happiness, and spiritual wellbeing are riches earned when you love freely, listen well, and give without expectation. They are outgrowths of our common humanity which cannot be embraced if you hold yourself apart from, or above, other people.

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Annie Spratt

The good news is, you are only six; your ideas and habits are still forming. An only child, yes, but you have been born into a community of great diversity. I have hope for you. Thinking about moral virtues as skills to be practiced gives me hope. Your dad and I are sports-mad. We understand practice. If we can take you to the gym to play and shoot jump shots, there’s no reason we can’t also practice kindness, generosity, and empathy until these skills, too, become second nature. There’s no reason I can’t to celebrate the performance of these skills as consistently as I acknowledge good marks or bad behavior. A shift in emphasis may be all you need: shift from “the” to “a” and from “I” to “we.” It’s a start, at least.

I slip into your room to tuck you in, your face alive with dreams, and the dread inside me eases. What a beautiful thing if by the time you are old enough to read these words you no longer needed them. This is my hope, one I will act upon to help you grow into a man full of grace and empathy. For your own good and for the good others.

Love always,

Mom

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About the Author

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Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her essays, reviews, and short stories have appeared in various publications, including MUTHA Magazine, the Farallon Review, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, The New Orleans Review, Brevity, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.

 



15 Responses to You Are Not The Special One: A Letter To My Son

  1. Avatar Monica Biswas says:

    This 100 times yes. I see my most important job as a feminist/anti-racist/etc is raising two privileged boys to realize that they are connected to all other people, and that they are not better than any of them, even when that feels hard. I often don’t know how I’m doing, but I, too, would rather overreact now, than find that years later I didn’t pay enough attention.

  2. Avatar Sandra Grayson says:

    Lovely essay, Mary. I think your example, and your husband’s, will be powerful.

  3. Avatar Mary McCall says:

    Mary – congrats for being brave enough to write this now – and to keep on with the struggle of how to raise good white males! Having had to do it with two very different kind of young men (now 32 and 27), I can’t say I succeeded – only that I know I can have real conversations with them about how their privilege shows up in their lives and that they can hear that from me and many times (not always) – see it in action themselves….and then choose what to do about it in their lives. Keep on thinking, talking and writing about it!

  4. Avatar Joanne Furio says:

    So beautifully evoked and written. Yes, we must take care in raising our sons.

  5. Avatar AT says:

    Thank you for this essay Mary. This expresses much of what I think about with my 2 young, white sons and have been reflecting on when making decisions about where to send them to school. I’ve found lots of helpful guidance from authors writing about anti-racist parenting, e.g. the book “Raising White Kids” by Jennifer Harvey.

  6. Avatar Greg Turcotte says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for this. You put into words some of the nascent ideas I’d been wrestling with since seeing the hearings.

    Yesterday, my sister sent some pictures my grandma had collected of us when we were near the same age as your son. I was in an Adidas sports jersey that looks a lot like the one in your picture. I remember having some of the same thoughts as your son at that age (yes, he’s likely aware). For me, it was my mom’s example and my dad’s intervention that curbed this life-view from taking root more than it has. In Grass Valley, we really didn’t grow up in a culture of diversity.

    For me, privilege has shown up in having multiple chances to reinvent myself. It took me about ten years to make my way into the university system after high school, but it was still there, and still an option for me. I know that’s not the case for many.

    The reason I found this article was because I was thinking on this experience, going to college as a 28 year-old white male. I had done much of my lower-division work on the side through community college, but there was still one freshmen level history course I needed to complete before entering my degree program. While in class, I struck up a conversation with a student sitting next to me. It turns out she was from our area and had just matriculated from our old high school. First, she asked me what took me so long, and I laughed it off saying, “work”. Knowing my graduating class, she went on to tell me how much of a hero you were to her. She had watched all your games and tracked your career through St. Mary’s. I have no idea what her name is today, but it stuck with me.

    It was then that I realized my role there was not going to be what is often typified by the white-male college student. I saw myself more as an older brother. It wasn’t my role to mess with their college experience, but I could help them with the academic part of things. I found my place, and it became a career for me. I teach at a community college now.

    I don’t have any solid answers for you, other than to say, your mindfulness on this subject will go a long way towards ensuring you are not creating yet another piece of the problem. There is a tricky balance between maintaining self-confidence versus the extreme of viewing yourself as “The Special One”. I don’t know the answer to this. Probably a mandated delay of one-decade for white-males between high school and college would not be well received. Joking aside, I do think you’re on to something with your approach to sports.

    Warm regards,

    -Greg

  7. Avatar Mary says:

    Dear Greg,

    Thank you so much for your kinds word! I’m grateful for your honesty (and awareness) and that you’re teaching. Please let me know if I can help in any way. Thanks again.

    Mary

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