How to Reality-Check Your Kids’ Talents
Imagine this: Your child brings home a dreadful drawing from school and you immediately gush, as if viewing the Mona Lisa, “Wow, that’s amazing!” Or your kid whose voice stands out (and not in a good way) during the “Happy Birthday” song doesn’t get a part in the school musical, and you call the drama teacher asking that every student be included. Or your son says he’s “terrible” at baseball after striking out nine times at his Little League game, and you reply, “No, you’re not! You’re great! That pitcher just didn’t know how to pitch well.” (And when this happens at the next game, and the next, you continue to yell, “Great swing!” before he sulks his way back to the dugout.)
Recognize anyone in these scenarios? Like… yourself?
It’s understandable. You don’t have to be a Dance Mom to go a little over-the-top with the parental cheerleading. We all want our kids to feel good about themselves, right? Well, of course. The only problem is that in the long-run, this kind of false praise and well-meaning intervention actually chips away at the very sense of self-esteem you’re trying to bolster.
Sometimes it’s hard as parents to separate out the difference between “being special” and “being loveable.” All of our kids are loveable, and they’re special to us, but they aren’t always “special” in their talents and abilities. Nor do they need to have special abilities in order to feel confident. The average person is just that: average. A psychologist colleague told me that when she first started doing academic assessments years ago, parents would be concerned if their kid was diagnosed with a learning disability. Now, she said, parents with B-students are hoping that a learning disability can explain why their kid isn’t getting an A. Somehow, average has become not the healthy norm, but some kind of failure.
So what’s wrong with a little sugar-coating? It’s crazy-making. It’s like being told that you’re a brilliant scientist because you knew that your napkin fell on the floor due to gravity, or that you’re a supermodel because you got nice layers in your hair. You know that’s a bunch of baloney. And so do your kids. They all know who the “real” MVP is even though every player gets a (meaningless) trophy at the end of the season. Kids know they don’t fall as far to the right of the bell curve as their parents try to make them believe. And the more parents do this, the more kids start to feel that there’s something wrong with being who they actually are.
What kids need to feel secure and confident is love and interest, not white lies. Yes, they’ll experience the kind of frustration, envy, disappointment, and sadness that yet another “Great job!” or “That’s awesome!” might have smoothed over. But it’s better for them to grapple with this in elementary school rather than in their dorm rooms, when it might be devastating to learn for the first time that they aren’t “all that.”
So let’s try it again.
- Your kid comes home with the not-fabulous drawing. Instead of gushing, “That’s amazing!” you might simply show an interest without commenting on its quality. You could say, “Tell me about your picture” or “What do you like best about it?” or “What were you thinking about when you were making it?” or “Was it fun to draw this?” or “Was that part in the corner hard to do?” If you do praise, be specific and truthful: “I like the way you mixed the colors to make the leaves.”
- Your aspiring Nicki Minaj doesn’t get the part in the musical and is crying. Instead of calling the teacher, you might just sit with your child, hug her, and listen to her sadness. You might tell her about a time when you didn’t achieve something you really wanted and how you got through it. If she gets into black-or-white thinking (“I’m not good anything!”) you might remind her that while some people are better singers than she is, she really shines at spelling, or handball, or keeping the peace among her group of friends.
- Your son knows he’s not the next Derek Jeter. Instead of denying it, you might acknowledge that he’s struggling a bit and ask him what he wants to do about it. He might say that he wants to try soccer next time, or that he wants your help or the coach’s to work on his swing, or that he’s more into karate or science than group sports and would like to find a cool class. He’ll feel good after having been heard and coming up with his own solution, and you’ll feel good knowing that this boosted his self-esteem more than a million empty “good swings!” could.
As for you, Mom: Great job!