I am not entirely unaware of the current dialogue in parenting circles about the dangers of excessive, unearned praise. And I am quite likely ruining my kid’s ability to accept criticism or find intrinsic motivation to work hard for anything, but so be it. Allow me to share with you two instances in which I felt I had to protect Julian from the ugly truth about his shortcomings and smother him with praise.
Example 1: His passion for magic.
For Christmas, the little dude received a magic set. He fancies himself quite the performer and spent a lot of time over the holidays walking up to our relatives and pulling coins out from their ears. He also used the tools in the magic kit to do tricks. He is five years old and not yet a believer in the old adage “practice makes perfect.” He would prefer to whisper the secret about his trick in your ear and then botch the trick in front of you, still expecting to see an amazed look on your face. Well, what is the appropriate response?
Like his other relatives, I presented him with my amazed face. Oh yes, I did. I did not say, “Julian, it is quite obvious how you did that.”
When he held up two coins between his fingers and told me that there was only one coin that he was about to turn into two, I did not say, “From the clumsy way your five-year old fingers are holding those coins, I can see that there are two of them.”
I said, “Wow! What a cool trick.” Or maybe I said, “I love you unconditionally, even if you suck at magic.” What’s the difference?
Example 2: A game with right and wrong answers
He received another gift: a game with the characters from the PBS show Super Why, of which we are big fans. It’s sort of a Candyland-style game, but the cards that you draw have reading skills questions on them. The players keep their cards if they answer the questions correctly and do not keep them if they answer incorrectly. So let me be clear, this is an educational game for kids as young as three, with questions about phonics, and children are penalized if they guess incorrectly. And if they are playing with a parent, or an eight-year old sibling, it’s not exactly a level playing field, is it? Is it possible that sometimes an eight-year old would be unable to point to the first letter of the word “Kite”?
So, when Julian’s turn required him to provide a word that rhymes with drill and he said, “she’ll” as in “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain”, I sure did tell him he was right on and let him keep his card. For one, we pretty much pronounce “she’ll” as shill ’round these parts, and second, I thought that was quite an inventive rhyme and I praised him for it.
I did not say, “She’ll sounds a little different, actually. A better rhyme is ‘fill’ or ‘hill’. Now, you can’t keep that card, so at this point, it’s unlikely you can win the game.”
If he grows up to be a whiny little bitch, just blame it on me, ok?