First Person

David McCullough Jr. of ‘You’re not special’ fame speaks up

Longtime Wellesley High teacher, father of four, and son of famous author pens a book on teens and parenting.

Lane Turner/Globe staff

People reacted initially to the “You’re not special” line, and I don’t blame them. News thrives on controversy, so I think some headline makers seized on that. It was a rhetorical device, somewhat droll with some validity. I’m stunned that it got the reaction that it did, but it’s also gratifying, too.

[My book] is written for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them. In addition to having spent all of these years with teenagers in the classroom, I have become the father of three teenagers, and each [role] informs the other. They’re up against these immutable social forces they know they’re powerless to change. So many see admission to college, or a rejection by a prestigious college, as a referendum on their worth as a human being.

I think the most important thing is for parents to give their children room to be themselves, to emphasize to them the pleasure, the exhilaration of learning. Don’t treat every bad grade as a catastrophe or every good grade as something to celebrate. If you make grades the point, then learning suffers.


We can all take a little reminder to be loving and understanding parents, not taskmasters or best friends, to recognize that the child has responsibilities that he or she should handle. That sends a message of great confidence, too, and that goes an awful long way. First and foremost, it’s the student’s responsibility to put on the helmet, pick up the pickax, go into the mine, and find the gems.

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I think the best thing parents can do is to provide their children a happy household and for them to see that their parents believe in their children, that no matter what the weather might be, things are going to be fine.  

— As told to Eileen McEleney Woods (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

COMING SOON You Are Not Special will be released April 22. The author will appear at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7 p.m. on May 1. 617-491-2220;