My parents, like many others, did a fantastic job. And to those who know me personally and are shaking their heads and tutting: just imagine how I would have turned out had they not been exceptional!
Still, during my childhood, most of the scientific information on infant psychology and child-rearing available to parents nowadays (aka in some circles as ‘total BS’ – and it is not short for ‘Brilliant Science’) was beyond my parent’s reach. It was either because these studies still had to be conceived or, more simply, parents were too busy parenting and earning a living to have time to read.
I was brought up in an environment where mothers and fathers were encouraged to love their children but firmly dissuaded from showing affection. Particularly as a father, you were entitled to approve of your offspring’s achievements only via a curt nod of the head (those rare parental textbooks recommended moving the chin by 3.5 cm). And most definitely not by any vocalisation of congratulatory remarks. The only two permitted were: “why did you get [fill in child’s mark] but not 100%” when talking about exams and “[Indistinct grunt], not too bad” for artistic or sportive performances. Words like “Bravo!” or “well done!” were considered mortal sins and required absolution by an archbishop, while the phrase “I am so proud of you!” was, I am pretty sure, severely punishable by law.
So my generation grew up rather perfectionist and sometimes with a self-esteem leaning on the low side. I personally admit to a permanent and pathological unhappiness with whatever I do because it can always be better. More importantly, it made us cautious about putting ourselves forward. You were not considered a singer before having signed up with EMI and performed at the Royal Albert. You wouldn’t say you are a writer before having published and sold over a zillion copies. In short you wouldn’t say you are an expert in anything: you were simply in a perpetual process of improvement. Incidentally, upon reading John Cleese’s autobiography, it struck me how much of this comes out in his childhood experiences – even though, let’s be clear, Mr. Cleese is way, way, older than I. It made me wonder how much of these traits trickled through my British colonial heritage.
In vino veritas
I am not saying all this because I just suffered a bout of nostalgic incontinence but because a recent conversation with a close friend made me contrast this aspect of my childhood with what we – current parents – are doing with our children. Maria* dropped by one morning, unexpectedly, claiming she needed a glass of wine to calm her nerves and an ear to listen to her woes (I suspect the former was more important since she specifically asked for Chablis). Her indignation stemmed from a football tournament her son had participated in.
‘Only five kids out of a whole team were making an effort to retrieve the ball’, she moaned, downing a glass of the white burgundy, ‘the rest were just walking around and stealing moments off-pitch to nibble at the fries that their parents were buying them!’
My first reaction was quite similar to the one you are probably experiencing reading this: Seriously? Are you letting a bunch of kids who suck at football get at you? For an instant the macho in me even thought of asking which time of the month it was before my conscience stepped in to remind me that in 2018 this is unacceptable.
‘It’s not the abysmal performance that made me angry’ she replied to my mitigated comment, ‘It’s the stupid parents who were congratulating their sons after the match! Oooh my little chubby-cheeks, you played soooo well! What idiots! They’re praising apathy and raising entitled kids!’
Maria is a veritable force of nature when upset. Still, she was on to something here and it struck a chord. It is certainly helpful to encourage children in their endeavours. What Maria was saying though, was not that children should be judged on their results but that they should be praised only for their efforts. When they don’t make and effort they should not receive acclaims and ideally they should be reminded that to achieve results they should do their best. The fact that she said all this over a bottle of exquisite French wine simply made it more palatable.
Can parents ever get it right?
Probably not. But modern parents are likely keeling the boat too much in the opposite direction of their forebears. Maria is not the first to raise the issue, of course. A few years back a Forbes article quoted a study by Ohio State University linking over-praising children with narcissism. I dislike the tendency of Psychology to label characters and characteristics. The truth is that even if your child does not turn out to be the self-admiring, obnoxious git that this study forecasts, he or she might still grow up lacking the combative instinct to achieve higher ambitions. And most parents would agree that that is problematic. In the real world, results require motivation and tenacity. Your boss, your partner and your adult friends are unlikely to squeeze your chubby cheeks simply because you dressed up all by yourself and you remembered to flush the toilet.
When you grow up lacking something -be it food, freedom or parental praise- it is hard not to over-compensate when it is your turn to commit new parenting errors. My rule of thumb is to focus on the attitude and not the result. I tell my eldest daughter, who is often nervous on the eve of exams, that I don’t care much for her results as long as she puts in her maximum effort. I say this, of course, because I know that when she does her best, the results follow. I’m lucky in that she performs consistently well at school, but even then, I always make it a point to remind her that had she gotten a worse mark I would still be happy with her, because I know that she gave it all she’s got.
Not being able to get it exactly right, however is not reason for despair. After all, parenthood is less about getting things right and more about a constant awareness of what you can do better. I have recently come across a good post that offers a valuable set of tips on how to gauge parental praise.
And when in doubt have a glass of Chablis. It helps make things clearer.
*name changed to protect privacy
Disclaimer: The views and opinions on this blog belong solely to the author. They do not, in any way, reflect the opinions of employers, associates and dependants, whether past or present
Photo credits: Cover-Pixabay.com; Insets 1-Jason Rosewell, 2&3-Pexels.com