We all want to do our best when raising children but, sometimes, we can over think it and miss all the joy.
My 7-year-old daughter dumps her denim backpack on the kitchen table and retrieves a wad of crumpled pictures she has drawn at school. She lays them on the table and looks at me expectantly.
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It is a ritual I used to love, but have come to dread. As I consider a herd of smiling reindeers prancing with her through the sky, I am enchanted. I want to exclaim, "I love this! It's precious."
But I swallow my words and stand there like a mummy as I search for something less effusive. For the past several months, I have been bombarded by warnings of child development experts about the dire consequences of over-praising my child. Or, heaven forbid, praising my child "the wrong way."
Terrain I once traversed with confidence, I now walk like a field of verbal landmines. A poorly phrased compliment could turn my child into a praise junkie who always looks to others for approval instead of herself. Or I could flatter her so much that she will feel inadequate and spend her life terrified of not measuring up.
"What do you think?" she asks me impatiently.
I try to remember the contents of the politically correct praise chart I've got taped to my refrigerator.
"What do you think?" I reply, then recite, "It's what you think that's important."
"I like it," she says. "What do you think?"
"Those reindeers look really happy," I finally manage.
I'm angry, though. What should be an unalienable right of parenthood, being madly and indiscriminatingly in love with my daughter's artwork, stories, singing and dancing, is suddenly viewed as bad child rearing skills.
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How did we get here? In the '60s, psychologists found that children whose parents bolstered their self-esteem did better in school, had more confidence and accomplished more in life. So parents heaped on the accolades, so many that they ceased to have much meaning. Enter the millennium where the praise pendulum has swung the other way.
The subject came up at our grammar school's Winter Sing when I sat next to an outspoken mother of four children.
"Oh, I never praise my children," she said, pronouncing praise as if it were a four-letter word. "The most I'll say is 'That grass is really green.'"
"How do they react?" I asked.
"They stopped showing me their things," she said, without a touch of regret.
I'd regret that plenty. I'm thrilled when my daughter wants to share her efforts. When she presents me with a stapled-together paper book she has written and illustrated, is it a sin to say "What a wonderful book"? I don't think so. She doesn't need me to be her critic; she needs me to be her mom, looking at her accomplishments through my uniquely myopic vision. She knows what's good and what isn't. And if she doesn't, a day will come when other people will tell her.
Don't misunderstand; I am not suggesting I should say, "That is the best book I have ever seen" or "You are the world's greatest painter." Constant, overly lavish praise rings hollow and makes its recipient cringe whether she's child or an adult.
But there has to be room for spontaneous delight, like the night my daughter read me a book for the first time as we cuddled on the couch. "I'm so proud of you," I said, beaming. Ooops. That comment could make her just want to read to please me, not herself.
Eventually I mastered politically correct praise. After another reading session I said, "You've learned a lot of new words." It was true. But the words tasted artificial and unsatisfying, as if I had chosen them from a phrase chart, which I had.
I'm tired of praising from this prepared chart. I am ripping it off the refrigerator and untying my tongue. And the next time my daughter dances up a storm to my old "Saturday Night Fever" album or draws a charming portrait of her stuffed bear, I will choose my comments from the best source around, my heart.