In praise (or not) of praise

“Mum, do you think I’m a good singer?”

This is a question that causes me to freeze every time it’s asked. And it’s asked at least once a week, and by all three children. I don’t know why they’re obsessed with asking this or what kind of X-Factor plans they have, but they really, really want to know.

Footballer - Office Mum
My future premiership player

It’s not just singing – they want to know if they’re good at art and football and dancing and writing. Maybe all kids ask this? Or maybe mine are watching too many TV shows where characters have talents. (I’m all for TV characters rating talent over physical appearance but even at that, a talent is a natural ability and is in itself a chunk of good fortune, something that (like looks) comes with birth. I think the desire to be talented is a pressure in its own right. But anyway, that’s another topic.)

runner - office mum

Sports day is coming up this week for example, and one child in particular keeps asking me if I’ll be really proud of her if she wins something. I tell her that of course I’ll be proud, but more than anything, I’ll be proud watching her take part (oh yes, we all turn into our parents). But she’s not having any of it. Like the detective that she plans to be (as well as a writer and a pop-star) she persists with her line of questioning. “Yes, yes, I know, it’s all about taking part – but what if I win? I really think I have a good chance this year. Do you think I have a good chance of winning?”

And I’m torn on how to answer that. History suggests she’s not going to  win. I love that this hasn’t stopped her hoping that this will be the year. I absolutely LOVE that. But part of me is also worried that she’s building it up and will be devastated if she doesn’t win anything. Should I say “Yes, I think you could win this” and then go back to focussing on taking part (while she blocks her ears)? Or do I try to build more realistic expectations from the outset? Instinctively I can’t bring myself to do the latter, but the first option doesn’t seem ideal either.

Ever since Cinderella’s step mother told her she couldn’t go to the ball, books and films have been filled with discouraging, unsupportive parents who tell their children that they’re not good enough. So in real life, we do the opposite – we tell our children that they can do anything and be anything. We nurture, we encourage, we support. We don’t (deliberately) put them under pressure, but we do tell them they’re great.

well done - office mum

And like so many parenting philosophies, just when you think you have it figured out, along comes an article saying we shouldn’t tell our children they can do anything. And that we’re praising them too much. Or that we’re using praise as a form of control. And that generally we’re creating over-confident, under-achieving narcissists who are in for a big letdown.

But surely they’re too small for the harsh reality of what the future more than likely holds? I mean, when my daughter asks if she can be a bestselling author or a famous detective, am I really going to say “Unlikely pet. To be honest, I’d say you’ll end up in an office job like everyone else.” Of course not. For now, I’ll keep telling her she can be anything she wants to be – I think expectations and reality will meet over time, without the sharp, shock of a parental knock-back. And who knows, she might be an author or a detective.

Having said that, it’s a fine line, and one I’m finding difficult to navigate. It’s easy to tell her she can be a bestselling writer if she wants to be – there are decades between today and that happening or not happening. But whether or not she’ll win a medal on sports day – that reality is coming up all too soon, and I’m still stuck on how to reply. For as long as I can get away with it, I’ll keep telling her that I love watching her take part. Something that’s absolutely true.

As for the singing – the outright lies will continue for now, and eventually, just like I did, the three of them will figure it out for themselves.

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4 thoughts on “In praise (or not) of praise”

  1. You never know, the singing might get better. A couple of years ago I despaired of my now 10yo ever hitting a note in the general vicinity of the one he was aiming for. Now he’s busy practicing for a solo at school and his note-hitting has improved a hundredfold.

    But apart from that brag, I agree, it’s a tricky line to walk. “So long as you try your best and have fun, that’s what it’s all about,” right?
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    1. Fair play to the 10yo! I have the benefit of knowing there’s no hope here – neither me nor my husband nor any member of either family can sing, so it’s one we can cross of the “should we nurture this?” list. But yes, I think all we can tell them is to try and to have fun, just like our parents told us.

  2. It is such a tricky one, that. I’m all for praise and encouragement and building up their confidence… but then… don’t want to set them up for disappointment either. I try to keep the whole – ‘everybody is different and has different skills. Some people are good at singing. Others at sports/art/music/whatever. When you’re a kid you get to have lots of fun finding out which is your favourite thing to do. I’m proud of you for trying/doing your best/taking part/etc.’ thing going.

    Although, we have our very first ever sports day coming up and it’s likely I’ll forget all that and just focus on the taking part bit too. 🙂

    1. I love the idea of being a kid and having fun finding out what you’re good at – that’s really lovely, very true, and a very positive way to look at it. Totally stealing 🙂
      Good luck with sports day!

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