the poison of empty praises and platitudes

Cultivating false confidence in a child is as detrimental as creating no confidence.

I witnessed this recently, a group of adults gathered around an adolescent after her first attempt at a craft, we’ll say drawing. The drawings were of average quality and reflective of an early effort. They gave no hint of raw talent or a gift. Was the artist a natural? Perhaps, perhaps not; the drawings indicated neither. Only further drawings would reveal.

The adults praised her as if she were a natural and her works of superior quality. First, one must set aside the tangential discussion of “consider the source.” Were these adults genuinely adept at discerning a good drawing from a mediocre or bad one? Contrary to their self views, no.

They were cheerleaders attributing greatness and natural talent to a youngster who had yet shown no evidence of either.

Consequently, the youngster has been unwittingly led astray by overzealous adults who have not given her her due of honest and discerning feedback. The youngster may now proceed with bloated confidence as a drawer or a view of the self that is a lie; both have unfavorable consequences. Further, those platitudes may push the youngster to pursue a path where his/her talents don’t lie and miss the one where they do.

I’m all for making efforts, absolutely! If Billy can’t field a baseball, I’m not going to pretend he can or mislead him into believing he can, nor will I lavish or coddle him with praises and encouragement that he can be the next Babe Ruth. That does Billy a disservice and propagates a lie. I’ll praise him for his efforts and encourage him to have fun.

Relatedly and to digress momentarily, we’ve become a people afraid to tell kids how it is. Correction: We’ve become a people afraid to see how things are with our kids. These days no school kid can be mediocre or bad at anything, oh the horror! They must all be gifted, superior, intelligent, full of promise in all things, the next Babe Ruth or Ansel Adams. Truth is, they’re not and they can’t be. Where have gone the parents who see it and say it like it is. “Billy, you suck at baseball! Your efforts are golden. And dang you play a mean trumpet! Keep it up!”

When I witnessed the adults lavishing baseless praises on the young’un, I felt angry at the adults and bad for the kid. I put myself in the former’s shoes. As a child, I would not have wanted to be praised for my sketches (as an example), basically stick figures that they were (and remain!). Would my feelings have been hurt were I told I sucked at drawing? Heck no! I’d rather be told it like it is by an adult with discernment and honesty than to be praised falsely. Better and nearer the truth to hear: “Gee, your drawings suck, but keep up that writing!” than to be misled or falsely assigned talents low or lacking.

The adults praising that young drawer thought they were doing well; on the contrary, they were doing a disservice. Our gift to our youngsters is to see them for who they are, and who they’re not, and to encourage them to become who they are. If that sometimes means saying kindly: “Billy, you suck at baseball but damn you play a mean trumpet!” so be it. Deep down kids know the truth of who they are.

In short, efforts are to be praised; gifts and talents are to be praised as well in their natural and deserving right. Thus to that adolescent in her artistic foray, I could not join the chorus, rather I could say only to keep up the efforts. To me that is honest and truthful and in service to the individual and situation. That’s all I have on that.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. ladywise
    Oct 24, 2010 @ 14:47:09

    Alley, I am definitely in agreement with you on this. I grew up with a parent that was very honest. She was quick to tell you that you were good at this or you sucked at that. It is never good to lie to a child for anything.


  2. Country Cinderella
    Oct 24, 2010 @ 15:15:55

    I agree that we should not lavish them with false praise, but by the same token I do not think we have to be harsh. I cringed when I read your examples of telling the child they ‘sucked’ at one thing but where good at something else. I do not think we should overly praise but I also do not think we need to be excessively harsh.


    • allycatadventures
      Oct 24, 2010 @ 16:38:03

      @countryc – You’ve been around a while, long enough to be familiar with my style of writing and voice. I didn’t mean to suggest a literal interpretation and use of “you suck,” though with some kids/people that’d be perfectly fine; it was written as such to convey a concept and thought. Hope that helps.


  3. fatcatfromvox
    Oct 25, 2010 @ 09:53:20

    Howdy! Sorry it took so long, but now you should be able to see my blog, I think. Please let me know if you can’t!


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