It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Vanity, Self-esteem, Tactlessness and more Self-esteem

I hear a roar of Righteous Indignation from Jazz.

“Grace! That is not a very nice word to say!!!”

Then pounding footsteps. Jazz thunders into the dining room, where Poppy and I are colouring. Jazz has been into the dress-up basket. She’s draped in two deep purple satin capes, tied at the middle to make a ‘dress’, with a shiny gold scarf wrapped around her above that, a bodice. It is her Princess Dress, of course.

Obviously, she did not get into this rig by herself. I’d helped tie the capes and wrap the scarf some while earlier, at her careful direction. Since then she has been alternatively gazing at herself in the mirror rapturously and wandering about the house rhapsodizing, “I am such a beautiful, beautiful girl!!”

Me, I am of two minds about this sort of thing. A basic part of me wants to repeat my grandmother’s words at her: “Beauty is only skin-deep, kiddo”, and expound upon the more important inner beauties to which we should aspire. But at the same time, I am aware that this is simply an unsophisticated version of self-esteem. It’s crude, it focusses on the wrong thing, perhaps — certainly the lesser thing — but she’s only four. She’s not denigrating anyone else, she’s not being rude or superior. She’s just feeling beautiful.

And really. Wrapped in a purple-and-gold Princess Dress who wouldn’t feel beautiful??

Which is why, even though I’m finding it pretty over-the-top, I let her keep on with it. Little ones are unsophisticated. This isn’t conceitedness, quite. I’m not entirely comfortable with it, though. A half-step in that direction, and she’ll be way over the line. Still, I’ve let her admire herself senseless for the past 20 minutes.

Apparently her own adulation was insufficient, because after a time of happy self-admiration, she sought some from her peers. She presents herself to them, whirling in her princess glory.

“Don’t you love my princess dress?”

They look up from the puzzle they’re doing on the floor.

I confess to a certain amount of wry gratification when, obviously far more interested in whether the piece with the blue bit goes with the piece with the yellow bit, they look up briefly. Grace is the one who speaks. Glancing quickly at Jazz, she says with minimal interest, “No, I don’t.” Then returns to her puzzle.

Ouch.

The score so far:
Tact: 0
Honesty: 1
Vanity: swift kick in the butt

Hence the Roar of Indignation, and the thundering to Mary for Justice! and Retribution!

“Mary, Grace said she didn’t like my dress!!!”

My tone of voice is emotionally neutral. Calm and matter-of-fact. “Well, maybe she didn’t. She’s allowed to say so, if she doesn’t.” (Because, my precious princess, you did ask.)

Jazz huffs in still more indignation.

“My mommy and daddy say you can’t say ‘no’!!”

Now, I don’t believe that for a minute, certainly not in the sense Jazz is using it. Jazz is simply using the age-old strategy of citing other authority figures in her life to try to get the world to cooperate with their whims and desires. (Of course Jazz cites me similarly when she’s at home. You would be astonished at what Mary thinks is A-OKAY!!!) It’s a red herring, and I know it.

“You know, sweetie, it really depends on why you’re saying ‘no’. If Grace said no because she’s feeling grumpy and just wants to be mean, that’s not okay. But if she really just doesn’t like that dress, she’s allowed to tell you so, especially if you ask.”

Jazz is not pleased with this dictum. “She was being mean! She said no!”

“No, I don’t think so. I was watching. Grace wasn’t making a mean face or using an angry voice. She just doesn’t like your dress, sweetie. Different people like different things. That’s okay.” Now, I may choose to address the whole concept of ‘tact’ with Grace later. Or I may not. For now, that’s not of great concern, and I’m certainly not going to reinforce Jazz’s idea that people MUST say what she prefers to hear.

“I want her to like my dress!”

“I understand that. However, it seems she doesn’t like it. That’s just what it is. Different people like different things. That’s okay. The important thing is, Do YOU like the dress?”

“Yes! It is beautiful!”

“Well, that’s what matters then. Grace doesn’t have to like it, so long as you do. So you can say to Grace, ‘You don’t like my dress? That’s okay! I do!’ ”

Heavy stuff, for four years old. Complicated, and Jazz is obviously dissatisfied with my pronouncement, my refusal to DEMAND that Grace stroke her ego.

It’s pretty tough for some adults, come to that. You know what it is, don’t you? It’s self-esteem. Real self-esteem, the type based on what’s on your inside, not your outside. Self-esteem grounded in your confidence in yourself, your worth, your decisions, not based on other people’s opinions and reactions.

I’m raising the bar for Jazz. She doesn’t get it yet, but hopefully, if everyone works at this for the next ten years, she’ll have it when she’s a teen.

When she’ll really, really need it.

August 9, 2013 Posted by | Grace, individuality, Jazz, manners, socializing | , , , , , | 2 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