It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Some days the “poignant” just about slays you

Noah is the sweetest guy.

Everyone thinks their baby is sweet, and of course almost everyone is right.

Nissa is a curiosity-fuelled dynamo, full of impish good humour. She’s a sweetie, all right.

Tyler has these enormous and perfectly round blue eyes, which, when he widens them at you, or crinkles them into his trademark scorcher of a grin, would melt the hardest of heart. Total sweetie, no doubt.

Tank has the amiable good humour of a Bernese (the dog, not the Swiss). He bumbles his way through his days with frequent blasts of ear-splitting glee. Another sweetie.

Emily’s enormous, amazingly round (that eye shape must be a family trait) deep brown eyes are set in the middle of a wee round face, and widen to astonishing degree when she’s telling you one of her long and instruction-heavy tales. The earnestness with which she imparts her Great Knowledge is just so sweet.

William’s love of the predicable and methodical gives a sense of little old man tucked into a scrawny four-year-old frame. It’s quite endearing and really rather sweet.

But Noah… Noah has an earnestness about him, a somberness lightened by brilliant flashes of joy, and, above all, a vulnerability. He’s the sort of kid who, not because he’s needy (he’s not), not because he’s clingy (he’s a cuddler, not a clinger), not because he’s frail… but for some reason, he’s the kind of child that makes you think, “If anyone ever hurts this child, I’ll have to rip their head off.”

Why is that? What is that?

It’s not that I don’t feel protective of each and every one of them. It’s not that they don’t all tug my heartstrings one way or another. It’s not that I don’t find them all sweet, in their own way. But, while I call them all ‘sweeties’, Noah is the only one who, for reasons I don’t fully understand, is ‘sweet’.

I think it’s because, in all the other children, I see enough aggression (a useful trait, when civilized into ‘assertion’), enough abrasiveness, enough pig-headedness that I can be reasonably confident that they’ll shrug off whatever slings and arrows life might throw at them.

Noah? Sometimes I think he’s a little too gentle a spirit, a little too open, a little too trusting to be able to do that readily. And you don’t want that to change, do you, not any of it, not one little bit. Openness, a trusting nature, a gentle spirit, they’re all good things.

But it sure does make you want to stomp all over anything that would bruise his sweetness, crush his gentleness, abuse that trust. You can’t accomplish that by protecting him, insulating him, muffling him from reality… much as that tempts. No, I’ll let him take what knocks come his way and show him he can be strong and sweet.

He’s a sweet, sweet boy, and I’ll do what I can to give him the resilience he needs to stay that way.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | individuality, Noah | , , , , | 5 Comments

Empathy 1, self-sacrifice 0

“And one for you!”

Timmy beams as he cuddles his small brown teddy. Anna has a mid-sized fuscia teddy, and Noah a teeny white one. I can’t find our other bears. Good thing Emily’s not here today.

“We all have teddy bears!” Timmy is delighted.
“Yeah! You have one, and Baby Noah has one, and I have one!”

“What about me?” My voice oozes confused dismay. “Anna has a teddy, and Timmy has a teddy, and Baby Noah has a teddy. Where’s my teddy?”

(What am I up to? Well, it could be I’m fostering awareness of others, or nudging them in the direction of compassion. I might be encouraging generosity, setting up a social game to raise their emotional IQ. I could be doing any or all of those thoroughly noble things, but really? I’m just playing with their heads. You all do it, you know you do.)

If Emily were here, I know what would happen. She would hand me her teddy. Without hesitation. Because Emily is exceptionally, amazingly, genius-level (for a not-quite three-year-old) empathetic. Good thing she has that cruise director streak to keep her from being a total pushover.

Baby Noah is oblivious, of course. He’s busy poking his teddy’s shiny eyes, miles away from the emotional conundrum I’ve just tossed into the room.

“You don’t gots a teddy,” Timmy laughs. Funny, silly Mary! (Emotional conundrum? What emotional conundrum? ‘Oblivious’ must be such an easy way to glide through life…)

Anna is not oblivious. She suffers with the dilemma. Her gray eyes dart from her bear to my empty hands, then at the other childrens’ teddies, and back to my empty hands, her brow wrinkled in concern. She sees the problem. Then her face clears. She has the solution!

“Here, Mary. Here is a bear for you.”

Aw. Isn’t that so sweet? She heard what I said, she understood the problem, she is concerned and wants to resolve the dilemma. Houston, we have empathy!

“Here, Mary. Here is a bear for you.”

Too bad it’s Timmy’s.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Anna, Developmental stuff, individuality, socializing, Timmy | , , , | 8 Comments

On Junk Praise and Self-Esteem

It is just about lunch time, and, as is our routine, the children have been directed to put their clutter toys and games away. This was a while back, and I had just started a three-year-old. This is unusual. Generally I get the children as babies, fresh off mummy’s maternity leave, but this little one’s mother had opted to stay home until this year, so here she is, fresh into daycare at the ripe old age of three.

After I’ve set the table, I look around at the room. The two-year-old has put his toys away, one of the three-year-olds has hers away, and the third? The newbie? She sits beside the block bin, and has put perhaps three blocks away. Hm.

“Why aren’t you putting the blocks away, like I asked?”
“You didn’t say ‘Good job!’!”
“And I won’t until you do a good job. Away you go! Tell me when you’re done.”

Her eyes widen. This was not the reaction she’d been expecting.

She’s obviously been fed a steady diet of “junk praise” by her loving parents. Of course she has. We’ve all been taught to do that: to build a child’s self-esteem, you feed them lots and lots of praise. You note their small accomplishments, you give positive feedback routinely.

And what do you get?

Praise addicts. Kids who can’t do anything without being stroked constantly. They’re like a car with a leaky gas-tank, constantly needing replenishing. You can’t get half as far as you should on the fuel you put in.

What you don’t get is healthy self-esteem. What you don’t get is kids who can see a task through to the end — not without a steady input of praise and admiration.

I’ve been reading “The Self Esteem Trap” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. It’s clear, well-written, thought-provoking, and, if you’re a parent of children under the age of 25 or so, probably provocative. It might even anger you, because it rebuts some of the noblest parenting ideals of the last three decades. It’s a terrific book.

I’d recommend it to all parents. Being the thought-provoking work it is, it’s spawned at least four posts in my mind. This is the first. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being part of a conference call with Ms. Young-Eisendrath. One comment she made stuck with me: “Self-esteem can’t be injected from outside.”

This is not to say you never praise your child, of course, or that you don’t take genuine pleasure in them. But when you’ve created a child who, at the age of three, can’t put away 30 blocks without four or five injections of praise and encouragement, what you have is not self-esteem, but praise dependence.

A child who is raised on a steady diet of constant praise for non-accomplishments can certainly gain an inflated view of themselves. This is not healthy self-esteem, however, for what happens the first time they bump up against something that doesn’t come easily, against something that takes a little perseverance before they’ll see success?

Do they have the inner resources to say, “This isn’t easy, but I know I can do it, a bit at a time?” Or are they more likely to say, “This is stupid!” and drop it, or blame the teacher for being boring, or declare the task irrelevant? Or, when they’re older and faced with a task they can’t drop, are they more likely to say, “I’m a failure!”?

It’s true. Over-praise a child, wilt in awe at their every burp and hiccup, and you actually undermine the development of their self-esteem.

I’d planned on more, but the tots will be through the door any second, and I want to get this posted today. Chew on that idea for now, let me know what you think, and be sure we’ll be back for more!

September 24, 2008 Posted by | books, controversy, Developmental stuff, health and safety, individuality, parenting, socializing | , , , , | 11 Comments