It was story hour at our local library. I was there with my then-four-year-old granddaughter, Kylie, listening as intently as she was to the librarian read “Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!” by Mo Willems.
It had been my favorite to read to the preschoolers I worked with years ago. Afterwards, the children put their mats away and went to a long table covered with newspaper and full of little paint palettes to paint a wooden birdhouse.
I stood behind Kylie and let her do her interpretation of Picasso on her birdhouse. There was no planning on her part, no discussion of, “Uh…what should I paint?” She grabbed her brushes and layered her paint colors one on top of the other until every bare spot was covered with this murky bluish grey hue. There were no dots or flowers or suns or space rockets or butterflies like the other children had painted.
“Beautiful,” I said admiring her handiwork and taking a picture on my cell phone for her mom – my daughter – to see.
“Thanks,” Kylie said, dabbing still at her birdhouse with more dripping color.
And then I heard the voice of one of the mother’s next to me whose daughter was sitting across from her.
“What a great job, sweetheart! Those are beautiful colors that you used. I’m so proud of you. Those are the most perfect stripes. You deserve an ice cream cone for that. Wait until Daddy sees it.”
A stream of honey-dipped praise spilled out of her mouth with each brush stroke her daughter made. I smiled and thought to myself that her daughter must be the most self-assured little person in her class, probably in her neighborhood.
“It is beautiful,” I said to both mother and daughter.
Neither looked at Kylie’s birdhouse and said the same. Not even a nod of approval.
I shrugged my shoulders and sighed.
“I know some little birdie will love your birdhouse,” I told Kylie. She didn’t seem to hear me, she was in her own zone. I let her be and took a seat off to the side
It didn’t matter to me if she didn’t become a child prodigy in art. I just wanted her to enjoy painting a birdhouse and the thrill of putting it outside in our backyard to see if a bird was charmed enough to visit it. This was not a competition. She and the other wide-eyed children were not taking an entrance exam to get into New York City’s prestigious Pratt Institute.
Soon though, this mother’s compliments filled the room. One parent pursed her lips in a frown as she wiped smears of paint off her little ones hands.
Sitting on the sidelines in those uncomfortably hard library chairs, I started wondering: when does praise become overpraise? Is there ever a time when we praise our children too darn much.
Even though she had basically ignored my granddaughter and me, I decided I was on this mother’s side. Scenarios started running through my head. Maybe her daughter had a teacher who crushed her six-year-old spirit in school the day before when she colored the sky purple instead of blue and her mom was trying to build her confidence up. (Yes, those teachers exist. My own son had one in kindergarten.)
Or maybe this mother had never been told she could be great at anything growing up and she wanted to ensure her daughter didn’t grow up carrying the weight of self doubt. Who knew, but I was willing to bet that if her daughter had painted her birdhouse a murky grey, or all black (as Kylie used to do because black was and is her favorite color), her praise would be equally enthusiastic.
Growing up my parents didn’t heap a lot of praise on me. I knew they loved me to the moon and back, as this mother I’m sure loved her daughter, but it was difficult for them to say certain words when it came to adoration.
They were from a generation of hard-working parents whose deeds spoke louder than their words. Providing a roof over their children’s heads, food, and clothing were praise enough. If I got a good report card, my mother would make my favorite meal of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Or she’d call my grandmother and aunts to let them know how well I did right in front of me.
And if I failed at something, like when I froze at my piano recital and ran off crying, my mother would tell me about the time she got scared doing something, letting me know it wasn’t earth shattering, that I’d survive it.
In my tweens, though, I have to admit I longed for more. I wanted to hear that I was pretty, smart, creative, etc. I needed to hear them say it especially when I was teased about my thick glasses, my knocked knees, or my kinky hair. I thought hearing those words would have anchored me, stopped the flow of tears, stopped the late-night eating binges and free-fall of despairing words in my journal.
But not hearing how great I was all the time in a sense gave me wings. It pushed me to find that intrinsic button in myself that would keep me buoyant, that didn’t rely on others to fill a void. Still, I wish I hadn’t had to develop such a thick skin so fast; that all those porous crevices in my mind and body could have been overloaded with words that filled me with promise and power and beauty and worth so that the verbal sticks and stones would just bounce off of me.
I was determined to be different when I had my own children, and I was – to a certain extent. It took a while to be comfortable doing something I’d rarely seen or heard as a kid. But it paid off, and now my children are the ones cheering and applauding and saying, “You did a great job!” 101 ways so that their kids can have a positive concept of themselves.
Even though some statistics say that too much praise is detrimental, if anyone took a poll, I would loudly scream from the top of Mount Everest, “I DISAGREEEEEEE!!” Praise that’s genuine and hones in on a child’s gifts is never too much. That type of praise will stick to a child’s heart. That type of praise is an essential component of growing a child. That type of praise infuses them from the top of their heads to the soles of their feet with confidence.
And if we can keep that in mind when we dole it out, even as others roll their eyes, then Amen to overpraising.
Kylie’s murky bluish grey birdhouse still sits on my deck. It’s weather-beaten and has been glued back together after it was used as a throw toy by one of her younger cousins, but each time she looks at it she has that confident look of, “I painted that.”
“You know, it really is beautiful Kylie,” I tell her often when we are outside watching for a bird to come visit.