I read an article recently where the author made the argument that constant praise had a detrimental effect on a child’s capacity to face adversity. Basically, if you’re always being told that you’re awesome (even when you suck), a real challenge will expose your lack of skill and send you running in the other direction. Then again, being told that you suck at continual intervals would have the same chilling effect, so it’s about realistic re-enforcement.
But from the outside perspective of the childless observer, it can really look like us parents are heaping on unnecessary praise. We can get thrilled and excited over even the most meager of scratchwork art or minor cleaning effort. Let me explain why we get so excited. When you have been along for the long and grueling journey from infancy to now, any new skill or ability, no matter how trivial, is a sign that you’re passing the parenthood test. Your kid is getting better at being a human, and they’re able to do something that is totally brand new to them. So the first time they draw a vaguely human shape with the facial features in some kind of proximity to each other, well, that’s the most beautiful picture you’ve ever seen. This week, my little dude read 2 words off of the television screen, with no picture clue to guide him, and I lost my mind. Reading! THAT IS THE REAL DEAL, PEOPLE. We have progress!
And I am in no way advocating a persistent level of “way to go, tiger”. As the task becomes routine and easily achievable, I dial back the praise, as we make the transition from extraordinary to ordinary. But when he does something that I’ve never seen him do before, I am genuinely ecstatic, and my cheering is authentic. On rare occasions, the thrill is more of a terror, like this evening when Max was on the cusp of inserting a key into the electrical socket. Honestly, I thought we had made it past the age where that kind of dangerous shenannigan was possible, but now I realize that with great mental capacity, comes wildly dangerous ideas. As I write this, I am dredging up a memory from my own childhood, of being drawn to the wall socket and wanting to do the exact same thing. I must not have, or else I would have an electrocution story (unless the shock wiped my memory clean). I do remember successfully pouring water on a lit, incandescent lightbulb, and being puzzled at the result. Man, kids can be dumb.