Parental Praise In The Real World

I learned to read when I was four. I have vivid memories of revealing it, but also not thinking it was a big deal. I had just been picked up various lessons from children’s television and applied it to my Little Golden Books. I was actually surprised that everyone my age couldn’t do it.

The story was different for the adults, though. My preschool skills blew them away. When I entered kindergarten, my teacher set up time during the day where I would read stories to other kids in class. They’d sit me on this tiny rocking chair like a pint-sized Mr. Rogers and have me read these basic children’s books while individual classmates took turns sitting next to me on the floor listening. It was weird, somewhat ostracizing, and I didn’t like doing it all that much. Still, a part of me was proud in some way.

I don’t know if proud is the right word, if I’m being honest. I felt like it was my duty. I was a genius. All the grownups would say it. As I got older, I even joined a special once-weekly program for “gifted and talented children” called “Orion” where the teachers would constantly tell you how “gifted and talented” you are. If we played a game that required two teams, one was “gifted” and the other was “talented”. Yeah. It was a bit cringey, as the kids say. They really laid it on thick.

orion.jpgThis constant stream of praise and reassurance was enough to mess with any kid’s head. Soon, I was buying into my own hype and convinced that I operated on a higher plane than others my age. After all, I was both gifted and talented. I won awards and applause for it. This skill that so many children my age struggled to learn had come to me almost effortlessly, and before I ever cracked open a book. I was pretty special. Ask around.

That’s why when the Sunrise Mall, still a bustling shopping area and not the zombie nightmare it is today, hosted a big spelling bee, I was one of the first to sign up. I was around seven or eight but had the confidence to know I would knock it out of the park. Now, our whole town and the surrounding areas would know too  as they bask in the glory of my mad skills. I was das wunderkind of second grade Orion. When the day finally came, I had my chance to prove my superiority.

And I blew big time. It took all of about five seconds before I was eliminated in the first round.

I don’t remember the word or how I misspelled it. All I remember was that feeling of shock when the “ding-dong-you’re-wrong” bell went off. I stood there for an extra second waiting for the judge to say, “We’re only kidding. You’re not eliminated.” But he didn’t. And I was. Even as I walked off stage, I kept expecting someone to call me back and apologize. I had been tossed off that high horse everyone had put me on and it left me sore for a long time after.

That spelling bee stung me back to reality. It was a reminder that I was human and, since I hadn’t studied at all for this contest, it only made sense that I would lose. To think I could show up with little no preparation and easily beat those who hadn’t was both arrogant and delusional. Skills may appear without effort, but it takes effort to keep them growing. I hadn’t done any of that. I earned this loss.

That moment changed how I saw myself, other people, and my place in the world. To this day, I still have the flyer promoting the event. With one sunset at the Sunrise Mall, I had learned that no one is infallible. Resting on your laurels and letting natural ability float you through life only lasts until those around you catch up. The harder they work, the faster they will.

I worry about my daughter having a moment like that in her life. After all, we all like to give our kids positive reinforcement. There have been many so/so drawings shown to me by many kids in my life that are all met with a hearty, “Wow! Did you draw this? This isn’t professional? Wow!” Sometimes I mean it, but let’s be honest. Only sometimes.

It’s good to give your kids positive reinforcement. It’s also good to remind them that the entire world isn’t standing in awe of them, although it creates some awkward moments. It happened about a year ago while my then-ten-year-old and I were watching one of our favorite shows.

“The Next Step” is a Canadian program we discovered many years ago and has become a part of our lives. It’s a tween-style dramedy about a dance studio. While most of the stories center around the daily lives of the troupe, it also features a number of dance routines.

We were witnessing one of those scenes as one villainous dancer was jumping and flipping through the air with amazing grace. Olivia turned to me and said:

She’s a bad dancer. I’m better than her. I can dance better. Right?

There was a brief pause as I wasn’t sure if she was kidding. My daughter doesn’t dance. She hasn’t since she was about five. When I saw that she was still looking at me for a response, I gave her the one that she needed, but not the one she wanted.

Her? No. You don’t dance better than her.

Olivia crossed her arms, dropped her head with a frown, and held herself together in a pitifully sad position. It’s her universal, “I’m unhappy” pose. She once, from across the court, used it to tell me she was unhappy with a basketball game she was playing. My son doesn’t have the market cornered on non-verbal communication in this household. We’ve all adopted it.

You’re my dad. You’re not supposed to say that.

Maybe it was my Orion teachers ringing in my head. Maybe it was spelling bee bell. Either way, I had to be honest with this kid.

danceOlivia, that girl is a professional dancer. She is not only a professional dancer, but she’s SO good at dancing that she is dancing on TV…on a show about dancing. So, if you are asking me if you are better than the girl who pays her bills by dancing on a television show about dancing and has probably been dancing since she was a baby, then no. You are not. You haven’t taken a lesson since you were in kindergarten.

Now she was squinting at me in that way that says, “If I could shoot lasers from my eyes, I could.” So, I tied it all together with a fatherly bow.

I believe you can do anything. If you took lessons, could you be better than her? Maybe. You can do whatever you really believe you can do. But it’s rude to think that you are better than a girl who does it every day of her life and probably misses a lot of fun things to practice. She’s good because she worked at it. You can work at it too, though..  Do you want to? We can sign you up for dance lessons again.

She looked back at the TV.


Then, no. You’re not a better dancer than she is. But you’re a good dancer. I like watching you do the moves you make up. That’s what’s important. Dance is subjective anyway. It’s not always about who is better or worse. It’s about what you like to watch.

And that was it – praise mixed with reality all in an effort to make sure she doesn’t go through life with an inflated sense of her natural superiority.  I didn’t kill her self esteem or make her doubt her own ability. It gave her a valuable piece of advice that life is about hard work and consistent practice. It’s something we all must learn. I’d rather she hears it from me now, than from a laughing American Idol judge one day.

She can do anything, but she has to try. We may all complain that kids get participation trophies, but they know those are symbolic. If she wants the real ones, she has to earn them. It’s my job, as her dad, to remind her of that. She’s not perfect, but she can try. It’s what I do.