As a mother, I think about this topic on a daily basis, watching my child burn through reams of printer paper in her quest to fill every available space with art.Every painting, every illustrated story, every blobby heart with the written declaration that she loves mom gets exaggerated oohs and that's amazings and other over the top exclamations. It thrills me that she loves to draw like her father, that she can sit for an hour with such focus to create. I like covering up precious refrigerator real estate with her work. But the other day she lamented that a kid at school didn't believe she was "a great artist." The declaration froze me in my tracks.
Because she's not. She can't be. She's five. But she certainly believes it, and she believes it because I made it so.
My mom, as my mom is wont to do, sent me a parenting column (John Rosemond, "Living with Children" that focused on praising your children.
I recently came across a study showing that when adults praise ability, performance actually worsens. Praising effort, on the other hand, raises performance over time. This is the difference between telling a child he’s really good at math and telling a child you’re proud of how much effort he put forth studying for the math test (irrespective of his grade). Over time, the former child’s math grades are likely to go down, while the latter child’s go up.
The words resonated with me. We are the overpraising, helicopter parenting, everyone gets a trophy generation, after all.
But what's worse, is that I am one of the earliest test cases for You are Special Syndrome. I have the third place ribbons. The Most Improved Swimmer trophy from summer athletic camp. The honorable mentions. And I am here to tell you that for a large part of my twenties and thirties, I had a really hard time understanding why no one recognized how Special I was. Why weren't the literary agents beating down my door instead of sending me rejection slips? Why hadn't I been discovered in a cafe? (That girl - the one who looks so pensive sitting there, writing. We must sign her immediately!) While I certainly worked, I spent perhaps an equal amount of time wishing, hoping my life would change because I deserved it. I should leave spent that hour rewriting. I entered contests, knowing the results would change my life. It never did. Still hasn't, but fortunately my warped system of belief hasn't destroyed the legitimate love I have for expressing myself as a writer. Rita Mae Brown's wise words echo in my ears: Don't hope more than you are willing to work
And that is why I am stunned and thrilled by David McCollough's recent high school commencement speech that is on the verge of going viral, and deservedly so. In it, he tells the fresh-faced, gowned, and tasseled graduates that they are not special. In front of their own parents. It is a remarkably brave and witty speech. It was not, as some upset parents contend, cruel, or Mr. McCollough's attempt to abuse the spotlight. It was sage, bracing, wise advice from someone who has likely lived it himself. (Mr. McCollough is the son of famed historian David McCollough). Here is the speech in it's entirety. I'm gonna get back to not telling Harlow what an outrageously talented artist she is. But compliment her on her focus and determination? Absolutely.
*artwork above is one of my favorite Harlow Sweazy originals and soon to be new blog header