Motherly musings on praise and support

I have had some really interesting conversations lately with good friends who are also good mothers. Our children are about the same age, and I know we give them everything we've got. Many of us, however, also feel quite a pang, at times quite significantly, about the sense of self that we ignore, bury or even shed in order to be able to parent to our standards. In light of those sacrifices, the questions that surround whether or not we're doing a good job with our children can feel especially fraught with anxiety and wonder.

  • What if our best efforts aren't good enough?
  • What will the aftermath of our mistakes be?
  • How do our nurturing actions support or butt heads with our kids' innate natures?
  • When we feel deep down that our children don't need or benefit from what American society deems valuable/helpful/necessary, how do we manage feedback, sometimes negative, that we get from others? How do we stand our ground when to do so can feel isolating or unsure?
  • In this context, how does praise fit in? It is common to hear that American kids today are way overpraised and that this is undermining their sense of agency. How do we instill self-confidence while also keeping our kids humble and willing to work hard?

What a messy jumble of difficult queries, layered into which can also be parental competition with one another. I haven't experienced this too often, fortunately, but the times I have have been extremely unpleasant (see: mother/father who complained about me to the teacher when J and I made Valentines for classmates, not knowing we weren't supposed to; really?!). We all know parents who think their child(ren) is the most amazing creature on Earth, without fault or foible, as well as parents who will spend or do anything to enhance their child's image or abilities. It is beyond natural to want the best for your kids, to feel you'd walk to the ends of the earth to help them and ameliorate their struggles or pain. But how much is too much, and where do you draw the line?

These are questions that each parent must answer for him- or herself. Even the most expert among us can't solve every problem, understand every child. And as any of you who have more than one child know, no two are alike, not even the closest of siblings. So, what works for one child may not (at times probably won't) work for another. Disciplinary tactics may have to be scrapped. The ways in which you try to instill pride and competence might need review. And so on.

When Jack was 2 or 3, I signed him up for a tot soccer league. He's never expressed much interest in sports, but I figured that he might enjoy being outside and with his friends. Bless his heart, he ran around the field a few times and spent the rest of the season picking flowers and identifying weeds. I loved that he was just being himself, his dear self just appreciating the nature around him, but when the season drew closed and the managing parents were ordering trophies, I certainly did not feel that Jack needed or deserved one. It would have a) been meaningless to him as he had no idea what a trophy was, b) stood for pretty much nothing since I'm not sure he ever kicked his ball during practices, and thusly c) rewarded him simply for my paying his membership fee rather than any work or commitment on his behalf. This seemed like a no-brainer to me, and I did not order a trophy. I'm pretty sure I was the only parent to have made that decision, but it just felt right.

Similarly, one of the belt testing sessions in Tae Kwon Do occurs next week, and I haven't registered J for it. He has been away from lessons for 2+ weeks because of our trip abroad, and the class he attended just before we left was spent wiggling his loose tooth and reclining against the mirrored walls of the studio (despite my stern gestures to stand up and pay attention). As such, I felt he was not prepared for testing; on the one hand, I didn't want to set him up for failure, but on the other, I didn't want him to pass if he didn't really deserve to. Some of the other parents, friends of mine who I respect and enjoy, seemed somewhat aghast when I said that "no, I hadn't registered him." I ended up speaking to the teacher who basically agreed with me but said that if J attended three additional classes between now and testing, he felt he would be prepared. I said we'd definitely attend the classes and if he tried his hardest (as he did yesterday) then we could do the testing. Yada, yada, yada. The bottom line is that the issue of praise, how much and when, can certainly be a point of disagreement in the world of parenting.

There was no animosity in the brief discussion yesterday, but the surprise on my friends' faces was loud and clear, and I wondered what they thought of me in that moment.  Did I seem cruel or to have overly strict expectations of J? I'm not sure, but what I did feel sure about was that before his terrific job in class yesterday, he didn't deserve the "promotion," and I don't want to reward laziness or squeaking by. I also don't want to support that financially.

I feel it is my duty to raise children who seek help when they need it but who are self-reliant and resourceful when they don't; children who have as strong an EQ as possible but who also can be by themselves and enjoy that time; children who recognize how terribly fortunate they are and who feel a responsibility and desire to give back to their family and community; children who do not take their education for granted but also don't succeed just to succeed but rather for the pleasure and journey incumbent in true learning; children who recognize that parents have needs too and that respecting our limits and rules is a sign of respect and maturation. In this context, I can see how praise for "nothing" could be damaging and hinder the goals I have for the boys.

One friend and I were talking yesterday about her feeling like she's a critical parent, that perhaps her expectations are too great. I wasn't convinced. I mean, let's be understanding about kids' abilities at certain ages and respect personality differences, but after that, it seems quite reasonable to expect certain age-appropriate things of your children and to express disappointment (kindly, justly) when they shirk those responsibilities. I am a mother who wants to be at home and in the trenches of parenthood, but I am not a servant, and I do have my own needs.

This undercurrent of guilt that she expressed, that another friend mused about last week and that I certainly feel sometimes, weighs on the soul of the American mother in ways that seem unique. I don't know many fathers who feel guilty about their parenting, and a friend, who wrote an essay examining the differences between American and European motherhood experiences said that in her research, she found little to suggest that Euro moms carry an albatross of guilt. Interesting. Is copious praise related to feelings of guilt (compensation or the like)? The line between incredible love and said praise is a blurry one. Food for thought, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments!