My Child, The Prodigy

Don’t worry, that’s not me, that’s the title of a commentary I recently heard on NPR’s all things considered, by Peter Sagal (of Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me fame):

All those people who think it’s impossible to praise one’s kids too much may need a little dose of reality. But essayist and father Peter Sagal says it won’t start with him — or his daughter’s tee-ball team.

There’s been a New York Times piece, a WSJ piece, an MSNBC bit — all kinds of press on the perils of praise. And I have to confess they all make sense to me. I liked what Patience had to say on that topic too.

Still, I really enjoyed Sagal’s lighter take on praise. And I liked what he said: When he stands up and yells “great job!” it is “propelled by a mighty interior wind of joy.” The thing is, he says, “I really mean it.”

I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to achieve the impossible: to be blank slates, totally neutral backrounds that never affect our children’s growth. We’re people too, and someday I predict that therapists will have to answer for the widespread belief that all of our interactions ideally mimic the theraputic model of dispassionate receptivity focused wholly on one-half of a two-person relationship. (Talk about developing a sense of entitlement!) Family relationships go in several directions, and it strikes me as unhealthy to squelch all your expressions of happiness in fear of “breaking” the fragile child’s psyche.

I make a concerted effort to teach my children to be proud of themselves rather than seeking external validation. When Violet starts hounding me about how much I like something she’s done, I ask her what she likes about it. I ask her to evalute her piano practice and tell me what she liked and what she wants to do next time. I help Victoria see how a strength she has in one area can help her meet a challenge in another area. I love to hear Victoria describe herself happily as “sturdy,” a word she learned from me.

And like everyone in our family, I have a highly developed critical side. We are all good at finding fault, and focusing on the tiny flaw in an otherwise wonderful movie, song, achievement, person, or day. And we are perfectionists, stuck with the belief that only what is perfect is good.

With all that going on, I am not going to feel guilty about genuine expressions of praise.

Now, where is my parenting trophy?



Filed under Does This Look Funny?, Gifted Heart and Soul, In the News, Our Philosophy (such as it is)

5 responses to “My Child, The Prodigy

  1. I understand all the criticism of praising our children. But I think it is unnatural for a mother not to do it. Well, it seems unnatural to me. I praise my kid outrageously. I didn’t get much of that kind of thing when I was growing up, being from an Irish, Protestant, hard-working ethic. So I’m bouncing back in the opposite direction. (Although I hope I am hard-working … I was up at 11pm making bread last night, does that count?)

    The aspect of praising children which I don’t like is when everyone gets praised for something about their product whether they deserve it or not. The way everyone has to be successful. Children are not prepared to handle failure. This is a big problem when they grow up.

    You write such interesting posts, it is impossible to resist commenting these days, even though wordpress takes ten minutes to process my post!

  2. Great post!

    I do praise Z – sometimes I tell her she is the most wonderful, beautiful, smart, nice and funny girl in the whole universe. And she tells me I am the best mommy in the multi-verse! I think she understands that that is just love talk.

    And when she does something that amazes me I say “That’s so amazing!”

    But I also keep in mind that she has perfectionist issues and that I need to be careful with my speech and try to make things better and not worse.

  3. shaunms

    Multi-verse — I like that!!
    Before Victoria was born I would tell Violet she was the most this, that, the other, and she would say, “All moms thinks that about their own kid.” (And she was not even 4!) After Victoria, if I ever say to Violet something like, “Oh you are just the sweetest,” she’ll say — “What about Victoria?” So I think kids do recognize “mom-talk” for what it is.

  4. Great post! Sometimes, a parent has to do what they think is best for their child and the heck with the experts and the books.

  5. All on her own, outside of school, and with no prompting, Sahra wrote a comic book called “The Horse Killer” all about a man who kills a horse (partially by hanging it, I think) and then uses it to feed his family (daughter makes bells out of the hooves … like the Iroquois, I’m told). And … while normally I am encouraging in specific ways about her endeavors, rarely speaking in abstract absolutes like “you’re so smart” or “you’re such a good artist” … on this occasion I could barely keep from telling her that she was the awesomest, most creative and hilarious artist who ever lived. The comic literally blew my mind. So … yes, there’s nothing wrong with praise when it comes not from some anxious attempt to build up your kid’s self-esteem or foster the child’s sense of superiority, but from being genuinely, jaw-droppingly amazed by the wicked genius of your kid.

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