Is your child special?

Posted on July 12, 2017

“Is your child special?”

That’s a provocative question, isn’t it? On the one hand, all of us who are parents will want to respond – “Yes. My child(ren) is/are the most special and precious child(ren) in the world”. But, on the other hand, our children can’t all be special can they, or the words ‘ordinary’ and ‘average’ would lose their meaning. I guess it all depends on what we mean by the word ‘special’.

In a recent Weekend Australian Magazine, Bernard Salt[1] spoke out against the societal tendency to tell everyone that they are special. He warned that a loving and cohesive society depends on people focussing on what they can give, rather than on what society ‘owes’ them (because they are ‘special’). He proposed that our society needs to swap the ideal of specialness for the ideal of sacrifice. I was interested to note that Mr Salt seemed unaware – or chose not to acknowledge – that the concept of an ideal of sacrifice is 2000 years old, originating in the teaching and the example of the One who said “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 13:15). And yet I wasn’t entirely surprised, as although these familiar words are recited at most ANZAC Day services, our society has largely forgotten where they came from, and the context in which they were first uttered.

In a similar, but rather more wide-ranging, essay in last weekend’s Weekend Australian Inquirer, editor-at-large Paul Kelly[2] also addressed the question of narcissism and egoistic individualism. Drawing on the well-publicised data from the recent census, which shows that the number of Australians now self-identifying as Christian has fallen to 52 per cent (down from 88 per cent in 1966), Kelly explored the extent to which a loss of traditional Christian values is impacting on the way in which society functions. He suggested that “The sense of a community of shared values is disintegrating”, and that “The most fundamental norms, accepted for centuries, are now falling apart as disputes erupt about family, education, gender, sexuality, marriage, tradition, patriotism, life and death”.

I was particularly struck by one case study cited by Kelly – a study in which American middle-school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second and Paris Hilton third! Perhaps this amusing outcome reflects the way in which our society is currently torn between a search for meaning based on traditional (Christian) values and the quest for self-fulfilment.

Part of my job, as Executive Director of Faith and Community, is to be the “guardian of two of the School’s core values – Faith and Community”. As I begin to consider what that means, I have proposed that we might agree on a set of virtues – a character framework, if you like – that we can use as a basis for conversations with students about what it means to be a good person and a good citizen. I make no apology for the fact that the values I am proposing are unashamedly Christian: I note that Paul Kelly described previous generations of Australians this way – “Some of their generation went to church, others didn’t, some keenly avoided entering a church. But that was of no account. They were part of a Christian society in its outlook and virtues and view of human nature”. In the same way, although the St Paul’s community (including students, parents and staff) represents a plurality of religious outlooks, as a school within the Anglican tradition it is appropriate that the character traits we agree to value and promote are those with their origin in the Christian faith. I look forward to sharing our character framework with you in greater detail in coming weeks.

[1] “So you think you’re special?” – Bernard Salt. Weekend Australian Magazine (24-25 June, 2017) – p34

[2] “Blessed be the egoistic individuals” – Paul Kelly. Weekend Australian Inquirer (8-9 July, 2017) – p 19

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