Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Over-Praising

When the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age, there was no real concept of children's mental health, bullying, abuse, or other psychological problems. Kids with behavioral issues were marginalized and ridiculed as freaks, and it was perfectly acceptable for a teacher to rap a kid with a ruler, or for a parent to smack a kid upside the head for having a fresh mouth.

When I was growing up, that was all much less acceptable, although adults still turned a blind eye to bullying among children, kindergarten graduation was a contradiction in terms rather than an occasion generating its own cottage industry of Hallmark cards, and you didn't get a trophy every time you wiped your ass. The sharp sting of defeat came often, and I can't say it was always a bad thing.

Personally, I land somewhere in the middle on all of this in my own role as a parent. I think it's good that it's no longer OK to open a can of whoop-ass on your child just for acting like what they are--a child--and I think it's good that adults have less tolerance for kids tormenting each other. But I'm also one of those "hey wait a minute" parents who thinks maybe we've gone a LITTLE bit too far with the praising and the rewarding. 

I often catch myself doing it, and I think most parents with young children in 2015 would recognize this situation: Your kid brings you something they made. Now, some of the stuff they make is legitimately cool, but some of it is also crap that they threw together in five seconds, and they are smart enough to know the difference. Yet you still react the same way every time: OH MY GOD HONEY!!!! THAT'S AMAAAAZZZINNG!!!!" Even if they are giving you crap, and they know it.

Case in point, I recently returned from a work trip to this wrapped box:


The note is a little hard to read, but it says "Welcome back Mommy. I hope you like it. I worked really hard on it." (Emphasis mine). 

Paige knew exactly what she was doing with that last sentence. She was trying to tell me that what could conceivably be mistaken for crap was in fact not really crap. And because the difference was not entirely obvious, she was going to tell me she "worked really hard on it" which is code for: "I do not consider this to be crap. Do not make me throw it out, and please praise it appropriately." In short, she was playing my heartstrings like a virtuoso. 

Because here's what was in the box:


The note had the desired effect as I immediately began praising this haphazard assemblage of construction paper, cardboard, and yarn. I wanted to have an honest conversation with her, because she's actually a great artist and often makes some very cool shit that I would never throw away. I wanted to ask: "Paige, did you actually work really hard on this? Or are you just wanting some attention from me? It's OK. You can admit that you didn't actually work really hard on this, and we can just go spend the whole day together instead--I missed you a lot and I'm happy to be home with you now." (Side note: I was prepared to believe that she worked really hard on wrapping the thing that I refused to believe she actually worked really hard on making, a suspicion later confirmed by her father).

But that convo seemed like too much effort, and also too intense. I worried her feelings might be hurt, or that I might start experiencing working mom guilt at intolerable levels. So all I said was "OH MY GOD HONEY!!!! THAT'S AMAAAAZZZING!!!"

And I left it at that.

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