I am reading a fantastic book, little by little, called Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The premise of the book is that many of current trends in child-rearing are bass-ackwards and actually damaging our kids in subtle but measurable ways. It has been a great read for me. It is making me think hard about some of the assumptions I'm making and also about some of the things I've learned from other parents.
So far, I'm particularly intrigued by the article about praise. In short, most modern parents offer profuse praise to our kids-- "You are so smart!" "You're a great baseball player!" "It is okay that you didn't make the team, you're still better than most of the guys that did!"
In a culture that has come to believe that high self-esteem leads to high achievement, this seems like a good idea. If my kid thinks he's smart, then he will be able to do anything. We want our kids to feel good about themselves and we want to feel good about the way we interact with our kids, so we've turned into praise junkies. The authors suggest constantly reminding our kids that they are loved, but helping them grow by challenging them, which is how our brains develop the neurons they need to really actually make us smarter. Telling a kid he is just generally smart doesn't help.
In fact, it can hurt. Kids whose self-esteem is built on a general understanding that they are brilliant or great at sports or the prettiest ever have a much harder time coping with reality when it strikes: they do fail a test, they don't make the first-string team, they get acne. When their self-image is built around a generalization, that generalization can be shattered more easily than if the self-image is built situationally.
They suggest that we should praise or challenge our kids based on their achievements. If your child does really well on the test, tell him your proud of how hard he studied or concentrated to make that test go well, that you're proud of that skill that he is developing. If the kid does a terrible job on the soccer field, suggest some special time together to work on it, don't excuse it as a bad day or blame it on another player.
I get this and, it rings really true for me. In parenting alone, it feels more genuine than the empty praise of "you're great!"
What about God?
That is, in some ways this kind of praise counters what I say in the pulpit so often. That is: you are created perfect and good just the way you are. That is: God thinks you're great.
It is perhaps true that I'm overthinking this. I've been accused of such before. However, the messages do feel conflicting. On one hand, there is the message of the loving creator, God, who believes us perfect, good, holy. On the other hand, there is this new theory of praise that says that I, the mother, should not actually tell my kids that they are generally good lest I set them up for a crashing downfall. I know the two are not mutually exclusive but I'm having a hard time working out exactly how to reconcile them.
The answer may have to do with the love piece. God, your creator, loves you. I, your mother, love you. Both of these are free of stipulations or qualifiers. No ifs, ands or buts. I'm not exactly sure where I go from there when it comes to praising my kids, but I am intrigued by this theory and look forward to continuing to wrestle with it. My poor little ducklings are going to be so confused.