When I was a child, like most kids, I knew my address, my phone number, and my parents’ full names. In addition, however, from about the age of four, I could give you my mother’s height (5’11”), weight (118 pounds) and the (alleged) IQ of each member of my immediate family. To everyone’s dismay, my own height topped out at 5’5″; I could give you the approximate date that my weight surpassed my mom’s — and so could she. “At least you have your brain,” became my parents’ pat response to anything that could be construed, however remotely, as a failure. You will undoubtedly be shocked to learn, then, that I grew up with body image issues and an identity so tied to intelligence that even the most minor mistake was devastating.
Before my son’s birth, I researched to death the ways in which I could avoid passing on these preoccupations, and more than anything, I looked forward to loving him differently. I wanted to love him so hard that, like pressure turning carbon to diamonds, he would overcome the grimy misfortune of genetics and emerge a sparkling, happy, well-adjusted little person. So, how to make that happen? By doing the opposite of whatever my parents did, right? By turning “your legs are getting kind of … thick” into “what a beautiful, perfect body you have, my wonderful and amazing child!” By saying “this page you’ve colored is worthy of the Guggenheim’s walls, my glorious treasure!” instead of “why don’t you try drawing a more realistic horse?” That should do it! Well, not exactly.
I noticed that over-praise, even when he was very little, led to a sort of trick-pony mentality. He’d do something, then look at me expectantly, like, where’s my carrot? He did nothing for his own self-satisfaction, and did very little just for curiosity’s sake, when he knew I was watching. He was happy, sure, and knew that I loved and believed in him, but I was just creating a different type of (incredibly adorable) monster. I slowly began to ease off the constant reassurance, the congratulations and cheering unless it was obviously warranted. I didn’t want to go cold turkey on him, leaving him feeling as though he’d done something wrong, but with even a subtle shift I started to see a change in his behavior. He became more motivated to try things, to express disagreement and move on from missteps without consolation. I’ve never been a plain “good job”-er, but I worked to be conscious of the kind of compliments I was giving: You tried hard to climb that slide, and you made it to the top; I’m proud of you! or The colors you chose for your picture look so pretty together! Soon, my approval was a pleasant aside rather than the main event, and I saw my son turn into a self-starter who came to me for help, but not confirmation.
It was a little painful for me to let go the need to tell him he’s great, all the time, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still worry that I was under-praising him, making him feel small or uncared for as I did so often in childhood. The thought of his pride and self-esteem withering under inattention is heart-wrenching. Those born into the Great Depression over-fed their kids, and my own version of the Great Depression left no less grievous an impact. I’ll never be one of those parents whose measured responses are always neutral, who calmly but warmly say, “I see you” when their children show off a new skill. Slowly, though, I’ve shifted my responses from zealous to simply sincere, from quantity to quality. I’ve thought about the ways in which I like to be complimented — the sentiments I find meaningful — and I’ve tried to imbue my son with confidence in himself regardless of whether or not he’s succeeding. It’s tough to tell how well I’m doing, but unlike some parents, I breathe a sigh of relief when my suggestion of “this shirt today?” is met with an emphatic “NO!”
Stefanie is a Jewish Southern California transplant living in the Pacific Northwest with her high-school-teaching partner and toddler son, who is a positively fantastic advertisement for gentle birthing, breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, vegetarianism, cloth diapering, and remaining intact. She spends her occasional free time playing the autoharp, sewing, writing, and daydreaming about goat ownership. Stefanie blogs at very, very fine.