A few days ago I read an article in Brain, Child Magazine that caught my attention and spoke to me. Nina Badzin wrote about how over-the-top our compliments, praise and exclamations in general are becoming. Using several exclamation points, for instance, instead of just one. That doing this scales the one exclamation point to practically meaningless. She also discusses that as the compliments get more “excited” (“Unbelievable!!!!! GENIUS!!! OMG! I LOVE this!!!!) so do the counter-defections and self criticisms of compliments. It’s a article worth taking the time to read and then to think about. Since reading it, I have become more thoughtful in my descriptions, and less willing to adorn my sentences with multiple exclamation points. But the part that really got me thinking was when she turned her focus to how we speak to kids:
However worrisome I find exorbitant compliments between adults, the problem is worse when it comes to the way we speak to kids. Each turn our children take at bat need not conclude in “great hit” or even “good try.” Sometimes my son stands at the plate and focuses on the people in the stands instead of on the ball. In those cases, it wasn’t a good try at all and saying so doesn’t help his game. If I tell my kids that every line across the page is “exquisite” or “amazing” how long until they learn to roll their eyes upon hearing that particular word from my mouth or anyone’s?
Several years ago my daughter and I lived on a small forested island in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia (and actually, the header photo of this blog is of these islands, taken from the top of the property we owned then.) The biggest event on Pender Island every year was the Fall Fair, in August. A small event by Puyallup Fair standards but it was well attended by residents and visitors of our Island. We had crafts and activities, performers, livestock judging, displays of harvest and of course, contests. There were categories for all ages of kids to enter: Best lego sculpture, best drawing, best piece of writing. Best jewelry, cake, ceramic pottery…you name it, there was a place a child could enter it for judging.
The first few years we lived there, my daughter refused to enter anything. She is a gifted writer and artist, but lacked confidence in her ability to win. No amount of me telling her that winning wasn’t what was important swayed her. This contest gave out first place, second place and third place ribbons. The other entrants got nothing. I didn’t argue with my daughter. She’d come to it when she was ready, or she wouldn’t. It wasn’t that big a deal to me. I hoped that some year she would enter something, and take that risk though. What I loved about the contest was it was real. Authentic. They judge on several criteria, and fairly. Being recognized with a ribbon was a big deal.
One afternoon I was part of a conversation in which one of the coordinators of the Fall Fair was positing that the committee was considering giving out ribbons to everyone that entered. To be fair to ALL the kids. So no one would feel left out. As the mother of a child deeply concerned about losing and about her art being good enough, one might think I’d be all for this idea. But I was not. I was adamant that nothing about the contest change.
My argument was that if we gave ribbons to all the kids, two things (at least) would happen. 1) Kids wouldn’t have to work as hard on their projects. They’d know they would get a ribbon regardless, and may not put as much care and effort into their work. They may even enter just to get a ribbon, not to show off their talent. And 2) It makes the first, second and third place awards less meaningful. It doesn’t stand out as much, and if the chance that the other entries become more “meh,” then children may feel it doesn’t take as much to win, and the whole contest becomes more mediocre.
I don’t know if my statements, given with conviction, influenced my friend or not, but that fall there were still only the three ribbons given out.
And that year, my daughter entered a drawing, and a pair of earrings she made. She won second place for both (and was told that if she had taken the time to put her drawing in a frame, rather than mounted on a piece of cardboard, she probably would have gotten first place for the drawing.) She was so proud. And I was proud of her. Not for just for winning Second Place, but for entering. For putting herself out there, doing her best, risking rejection. And she didn’t get rejection. The praise she got was solid feedback, honest commendation, and she knew it was real. It meant something.
We are going through a phase in parenting evolution that requires parents to “protect” their child’s self-esteem. Parents are doing everything they can to protect their child from feeling life’s disappointments. They don’t say, “no” but instead wrap that no in a pretty package and say, “I’m so sorry! It’s okay! How about this instead?” Parents are insisting to teachers that their little Taylor be treated just like little Jamie, even if Taylor didn’t earn whatever-it-is. Taylor might feel bad. But guess what? Experiencing and moving through adversity and coming out the other side is important.
Children are not born with self-esteem. They are born with the ability to absorb the messages they get from their parents and environment about their value and worth, but self-esteem is more related to confidence and capability. The ability to overcome and know “I can do it.” To gain self-esteem, a child needs to face disappointment, challenge, and adversity, and to get past it. The job then, for parents, is not to protect children’s self-esteem but to facilitate their recovery after a disappointment, rejection, or failure in order to grow self-esteem.
I was a mean mom sometimes. Knowing what I knew both about disappointment and self-esteem, and also about tantrums being more an overflow of stress and a needed meltdown is sometimes exactly what a child needs at the end of a stressful day, I would, shall we say, offer opportunities for both. For example, knowing she would want the pink cup, I’d give her the blue one. Then as the tantrum ensued, I’d be right there to listen, empathize, console and know absolutely that she’d recover, and the blue cup would be fine. She’d get the needed release, but also the knowledge and experience of being okay after a disappointment.
Sometimes as parents, we mess up. (What? Really?) In those times we need to be humble, and apologize to our kids, perhaps explain. We don’t get the luxury of back pedaling and rewriting history to manipulate the truth so that we can come out in the right. Our kids know. And we need to be able to model what to do when we make a mistake and are wrong. (You can read about how I was humbled one time in an article published in Mothering Magazine several years ago.) Life is not about never feeling bad, never messing up. It’s about living fully, and authentically, and compassionately.
We can help our kids find authenticity in their lives by helping them through their challenges, by not protecting them in situations where they may experience disappointment and hurt, but by being there for them with compassion and empathy when they are. We can afford to be truthful, and solid in our compliments, praise and feedback to our kids, and to ourselves.