Mindless refrain

At any park or playground, you’ll hear two words more than any others: “Great job”.

The only thing I felt confident about as an early parent was building my daughter (then son’s) confidence with constant affirmation, telling them what a good job they did on whatever little thing they stumbled through, like sliding down the slide. Who cares that gravity did all the work? My little baby slid down the slide, damn it. Great job! Nice work!!

You are such an accomplished little human, aren’t you? Wow!

Let me confess: I still do this. I long ago realized it’s far from ideal, and I cannot consistently invoke any restraint. It feels right, while the alternative feels callous. It also has the bonus of requiring zero thought, creativity, or effort. It’s lazy, and self-assuring. The perfect combination, like pepperoni and sausage (smothered in mozarella).

Maybe it’s because I am part of the first generation that was taught the term “self-esteem”. Health class in middle school was mostly about this concept (with some vague, negative references to drugs, and consistently mixed messages about condoms), and how everyone should have self-esteem, like it was an inalienable right.

If I am this messed up, what’s going to happen to the little snowflakes in college today, with their “microaggressions” and “safe spaces”? Those (adults acting like) kids are totally detached from reality. I can only imagine the f—ked up shit they learned from government bureaucrats teaching health class two decades into the self-esteem era.

Hard to earn

Breaking News: Self-esteem is not a right unalienable. Self-esteem and self-respect are there for your kids to claim, but must be earned, like most anything else worth having in life, by working, practicing, and making the right choices. I’ll put them right inside the “happiness, pursuit of” category. You don’t just get them. You get an opportunity; now roll up your sleeves, bub, and see what you can do with it.

All this generic, unearned praise is not good for children.

Do you really want your kids doing things merely for a nod of approval? What happens when it’s not your approval they seek desperately, but soon-to-be peers in high school?

If the reward is your praise, and your praise only, what you get are praise junkies. And these junkies are everywhere today, like zombies at the apocalypse. I see random kids at the local pool or park that want my approval, and I don’t even know them.

“Watch this!”, they clamor. “Umm, who the hell are you?”, I’m thinking, “I don’t even know you. My implied, misplaced directive was to shower my kids with meaningless accolades, not you. And wipe that chocolate off your face, filthy animals…”

Ultimately, you want your kids to appreciate their own accomplishments. You want them to do things of real value, and come away knowing the work that went in, and owning a sense of pride. You rob them of that by showering them with empty platitudes for achievements that came without real effort.

Higher expectations

I know, this news sucks, at first. But it is also enlightening. You are not a bad parent to hold back your praise until deserved. Expect more of your kids, and they will deliver. They will also respect you more when they learn to differentiate between the fluff they hear at the park, and genuine feedback.

Be thoughtful and just in dishing desserts, and constructive in criticism. Be specific, and coax the inherent, internal sense of pride. The reward is in the work and effort itself. “That is a neat tower you built, and the foundation looks sturdy. How does it make you feel to have worked so hard on it?”

Don’t be afraid to say: “I’m glad you’re having fun on the slide. Have you thought about trying to climb up the fire pole, or doing a few pullups? It will take practice, but I’ll bet you can do it.”

As a parent, you’ll be exposed all too soon as the lazy, empty shirt you are, or respected and admired as an authentic, thoughtful, fearless leader.

It may be too late for me, but save yourself! Tomorrow’s generation of hard working, well-adjusted, self-satisfied men and women depend on it.

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Like this column? Take a look at the Gut-Brain Connection for more unconventional wisdom parenting kids (boys especially) in this age group.