In praise of the right praise
Today, as I let a merciless TV trainer walk me through a bootcamp routine at home, Tyke sat quietly observing. Halfway through the routine, I paused for a drink of water and he exclaimed, “you’re so stwong, daddy!”. Perhaps he heard it elsewhere before, perhaps he really understood what it meant but I completed the rest of the workout with a silly grin on my face. It felt so goddamn good to be appreciated by your child.
I’ve heard so many stories of “mom/dad didn’t love me enough”, “I wasn’t appreciated much”, “standards for fawning were pretty high at home” that I lost sight of the reciprocal action. Do parents crave approval from their children? Yeah, sure they do. A child’s slight hurts a parent. Some will sulk quietly at thoughtless insults (like my Dad), others will lapse into paroxyms of “HAI ITNA PAAL-POS KE BADA KIYA YEH DIN DEKHNE”. But what about praise? What does praise mean to them? I believed my praise was credible as an adult, when I fully understood the ramifications of my statements. Now, I’m not so sure. As adults our praise is measured, more prone to biases and offered after thorough scrutiny, even to our parents. It’s my observation that even spontaneous praise as an adult for your parents can be brushed away lightly with an indulgent laugh or hug. The implication being that it’s expected and appreciated. I’m not saying that’s what my parents did, just what I think usually happens. True praise is sent and received in a ether of comfortable assumptions, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather assume my parents love and appreciate me (and vice-versa) than wait eagerly for signs that they do.
Spontaneity, however, comes easily to kids. The kind of spontaneity which allows tyke to hug his best friend when she gives him a Christmas gift or draws a picture with him. Between heartfelt and spontaneous praise, I’ll choose the latter, especially when it comes from little kids. It’s not till they’re a little older do they dole out praise quid pro quo for a bar of chocolate, sleepover, party, hanging out late at night with friends, purchasing their favorite DVD/Game/Music. I know, I’ve done it. Heartfelt implies a deeper understanding of consequences and the inclination to express that emotion regardless of its benefits. I don’t think little kids have such motives. They blurt out stuff and that’s very endearing. Bill Cosby’s even used it to make money.
Some of the anecdotes my parents share about my brother as a youngster involve him showering praise with brutal honesty. For example, when he remarked to a senior Army officer at his party that his “chick’s legs are great”, contentedly munching on a Tandoori drumstick. That’s spontaneous, endearing and dare I say, real (my parents agree today, but at that time were mortified enough to wish the earth would rend itself open and swallow them whole).
Somedays I get tired of scrutinizing praise for tone, motive and benefit. Kids tell it like it is. Kids tell a like, like it is, and I’m grateful mine does too.
A few days ago I was getting ready to go out. As I pulled on my jacket, I stood contemplating its suitability and its general ability to soften my wholesale ugliness. Tyke was lolling close by and piped up with “that’s handsome daddy!”. I may have looked like the world’s biggest square or the Hunchback of Notre Dame but I can tell you I strutted into that restaurant with the firm belief that I deserve all eyes on me. Because my son said so.