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Have We Become Too Sensitive?

Have We Become Too Sensitive?

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Perhaps more than anything else, our generation distinguishes itself as the Age of Sensitivity. It's hard to imagine, but not long ago schools for the developmentally challenged were officially named "Schools for Idiots" or "Schools for Imbeciles." Today we scratch our heads wondering how people could have been so insensitive. A mere few decades ago it was accepted wisdom that some people were inherently better and more deserving than others. And assigning demeaning and deprecating titles to people of a particular race, religion, or based on a disability was the norm.

In education, too, we have greatly advanced in this area. In times past, an educator's mission was to impart information, with little regard for the feelings and unique personalities of the members of the classroom. Today, education is rightly focused on building healthy and secure people, talking to children in stead of at them.

With all the hardships faced by previous generations, perhaps it is understandable why they paid little attention to "trivial" matters such as feelings and self-esteem. Many of the issues facing our ancestors are now gone. We live in a society where as a rule people aren't dying from hunger or simple infections, or working fourteen-hour days simply to put bread on the table. Physically we are much better off, which leaves us more time to dwell on our emotions and feelings. This also puts us in position to respect and appreciate our fellows' feelings, as well.

At times I wonder, though, has all this sensitivity come at a certain cost? Has the deliberate, laudable avoidance of focusing on others' weaknesses also led to a reluctance to focus on others' strengths -- for fear that it will hurt the confidence, feelings and self esteem of those who don't have those particular talents or strengths? And is this reluctance squelching the motivation and drive to pursue their unique talents?

Recently I attended the classroom birthday party of one of my children. The teacher started a song, and told the class that the one who would sing nicest would receive a prize. When the song ended, the teacher decided that everyone is a winner, because everyone sang so nicely...

On a similar note, my wife, a pre-school educator, informed me a little while back that it is unacceptable today for a teacher to compliment a student by saying that he or she is an "artist." That would negatively impact the feelings of those children who don't possess such talent.

But we aren't all the same. An attitude that all are equal and everyone is good at everything will lead to mediocrity. G‑d created us all differently. The trick is to uncover each person's talents and encourage them to develop their unique gifts.This leads to true self-esteem. A child won't be hurt by the fact that he isn't an artist, if he knows that he's the class math whiz, or that he's unbeatable on the playground. On the other hand, an attitude that all are equal and everyone is good at everything, while it's certainly healthier than the insensitivity that was once prevalent, will for the most part lead to mediocrity.

Furthermore, praising someone for a talent he knows he doesn't possess leads to a lack of trust, and, though well-intended, breeds dishonesty.


We must always be sensitive and respectful of each other. But not sensitivity that emanates from pity and a desire to build self-esteem, but from a genuine appreciation of the other's unique gifts.

This requires real thought, as opposed to mindless mantra-like compliments. But I think that the Age of Sensitivity is up to the challenge!

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Troy Seattle January 19, 2016

Do you live here in Seattle. That was the most passive aggressive article I've seen in a long time. If you're gonna be just as sensitive as the subject of the article why don't you just say it straight out instead of hiding behind lame humor. Reply

B July 5, 2015

I agree with some of this, however it is also important to note as helping to build a child's self esteem is never a bad thing. Especially since often you won't know what a child is capable of if you don't as lots of children just don't have the confidence to try. More importantly just because one child is less capable than another this hardly means they should be given up on, they should still be encouraged to reach their full potential whatever that may be Reply

Elizabeth July 4, 2015

Just like many said, this article is very well said, and I am a catholic. Reply

Steve O'Fallon, MO July 2, 2015

Well-said Well-said, Rabbi! I appreciate this point of view. Thank you. Reply

Chad New orleans January 12, 2015

G-d? I often feel as though I by timing of my birth have been misplaced. I was born in 1980, but have the sensitivity of someone from the 40's. It has caused troubles, I just think people hide from reality, and discomforts by the way of "political correctness". I'm just frustrated people would be better off not ignoring the obvious differences in people their talents, and nations. I'm really sick of Christians, and Jews alike to be open game for insult, and sacrilegious acts, and comments. We're is everyone else requires sensitive treatment? I hate it! Reply

Anonymous September 16, 2014

Spot on! Reply

Anonymous May 7, 2014

As a teacher I've had at least one student who is sensitive and becomes upset when they fail but boast to others if they win. Usually the parent is the same way which is difficult to collaborate with. I had a student cry and complain he's sensitive and then the parent complaining I'm not professional for telling their child too stop crying and be a big boy. It's so sad if parent's make their child believe they are sensitive. Yikes. Reply

Dave MERICA! November 5, 2013

What Difference is a Decade I am from a near generation of todays. I am a 29 year old male. I grew up in the Midwest and played dodge ball growing up. We had tackle football at recess and celebrated winners while losers got nothing. We failed at things and it made us want to try harder to be successful. I joined the Marine Corps. after high school and found myself surrounded by similar people.

Now, 10+ years later, I find that kids cant have physical contact activities at recess, losers are not called losers as to help there feelings, those who do not win but just participate get trophies and ribbons, and we tell all the kids its ok as long as they try their best.

Well heres some news, sometimes their best is not good enough. There has to be losers in order to be winers, feelings are not things we are to protect but to learn to cope and deal with. Bullies do not kill people or harm them, the softening of society and the inability to deal with bullies is what hurts and kills people. Teach winning!!!!!! Reply

Anonymous May 14, 2013

Sensitivity or hypersensitivity? This is a topic I have been pondering, non stop, for days. Pardon if I sound drastic, but I am flabbergasted. While I do agree that people still working 14 hours a day, to put food on the table, is still a very real occurrence, I don't see it as a matter of sensitivity. It is a matter of current conditions. Yes, I believe that America is overly sensitive. I believe it is hypersensitive, and self centered, under the guise of being thoughtful. When did it become okay to subject children to numerous, lengthy, one sided, social psychology experiments in our schools? When did it become okay to stifle them, remove honor rolls (so it does not hurt the parents) feelings? Remove papers graded in red ink, in several schools, to not scare children. Are red crayons scary too? What about scores in games? What else do we need to remove, to not bruise the tiny ego (right) and not remotely guide or prepare our children for life? Many Americans feel caged and crushed, in the name of "sensitivity". Reply

Anonymous derby, uk May 4, 2012

i used this in an assignment I cited your topic in my assignment on why patients feel the need to undergo facial reconstruction based on social influences, I found it summed up exactly how i personally feel. but was able to justify my discussion Reply

casey vernon, canada May 17, 2010

the problem is... we DO live in a world where people are dying of hunger, of curable diseases and many people DO work 14 hour days. we live in a time where there are many very pressing issues that we are turning our backs on... Reply

Hilton David Meinrath, JP, B.Spec..Ed Melbourne, Vic.,Australia via elwoodshule.org January 30, 2010

Have we become too sensative? It's about time realised the reality and made thisn type of comment. I fully endorse this article. Reply

Thurston Hurt San Antonio, Texas January 30, 2010

Great article Rabbi!! I'm a Christian and I was researching on the internet for an article or general information related to the sensitivity of american people lately. your article appeared in a Google search and I read it and......It was VERY good!! I will take that advice and apply it to myself first. I may not be able to change the world but, I can change myself. Reply

Nikita bhilai August 8, 2009

great writing. loved it Reply

Nina May 8, 2009

Thank you!
Bravo! Reply

Ana March 3, 2009

Sensitivity I totally agree with CS, and I also believe you can develop a talent later, and become real good. I believe it's only positive to encourage people in any direction they want to go, they have the right to do what they love regardless of their "talent". no limits/rules/instructions when it comes to this kind of happiness/satisfaction. Reply

Hilton D Meinrath Melbourne, VIC., Australia via elwoodshule.org October 31, 2008

Having been involved in teaching over many years (I hold a degree in Special Education), as well as having been active in the world of engineering and commerce, it is my experience that every indivual has some ability, insight or emotional understanding that allows him or her to contribute to the general betterment of humanity, albeit often in a small but personal manner. Reply

CS October 29, 2008

Sensitivity I found this comment very telling: "A child won't be hurt by the fact that he isn't an artist, if he knows that he's the class math whiz, or that he's unbeatable on the playground." This comment assumes that every child has some area where they're the star. It also assumes that deficiencies in one area can be offset by being highly successful in another, and that one's self-esteem revolves around one's stardom in one particular niche. Well, I have news for you--some children don't excel in any particular area. You can't turn to that child and say, "I know Chanie is the best artist but you're the best athlete." What you CAN tell them is that G-d created them with the exact combination of strengths, skills and aptitudes that they need to fulfill THEIR mission in life. If G-d needed you to have great artistic talents, He would have given them to you. Instead, G-d gave you other strengths and He expects you to use them. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY October 29, 2008

Sensitivity an absolute must.. Though I could see the reasoning of most of the author's points, I was surprised to read at the end that the author objects to sensitivity for the sake of self esteem.?!! Reply

Perry West Hollywood, CA October 29, 2008

so true! my mom was just telling me that if everyone is "special" then no one is special. what is true is that everyone has something unique, and plays a special part in this world. i think this concept is really important for everyone to know.

very insightful, thanks so much! Reply

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