Tag Archives: cutest baby in the world

i’d say he’s average

I could see the penalty shoot out, but only just. Five balls in the back of the net and you win a prize! My two sons were standing in line, waiting, kicking up the dirt together in anticipation. It was the older one I couldn’t bear to watch. If I looked closely, I knew what I would find: determination etched into his face like warpaint. Desperation too. I would remember the times in the past he had crumpled under the inability to meet his own towering standards. I would get that queasy feeling in my gut, the one he of my four kids stirs up most regularly. This child, my first child, has never taken failure lightly.

And fail he did. Not a single shot in. At seven and a half, he was able to hold it together long enough to find me and stuff his face into my armpit before starting to cry. We walked away from the field slowly, closely, which somehow made getting to the heart of the matter easier. ‘I’m rubbish at football!’ he said, between sobs, a declaration but maybe in some small way a question. Could his mother, by the sheer power of her answer, make him better at something than he really was? ‘It was hard,’ I conceded, ‘the goalie was big.’ ‘Yeah, but Gabe scored twice.’ We are well past the age when they are oblivious to how their strengths and weaknesses stack up against their friends’.

‘Keep practicing,’ I offer, but the kid practices all the time. He’s out in the back garden after school kicking the ball around for hours, some nights I have to drag him inside flailing in protest. Effort is not the missing ingredient. Talent very well might be. ‘You’re not going to be good at everything,’ I say, and he hiccups a little though he’s heard these words before. It’s a standard line in our house, something I tell my kids almost as often as I cheer them on. And I cheer them on a lot.

The truth is that I don’t know how good Oliver is at football. Other things he does are more quantifiable to me. I know, for instance, at what level he reads. I know that when he was younger he was spectacularly bad at drawing. I know that he can sing sweetly and in tune and that he can’t run very fast for his age. I don’t know how good he is at football, but I can make an educated guess. I’d say he’s average.

The dreaded ‘a’ word. The ugly step-sister of that other ‘a’ word, the one thrown around in playgroups and parks with a frequency that belies its meaning: ‘advanced.’ Or if not advanced, then at least above average. It feels like every other child I know has been described to me as advanced or above average in some respect. Sure enough, a handful of them are. But the rest? The bell curve of life tells us they can’t be. The issue is not the kids, who are no doubt each uniquely wonderful (I mean that). It’s the moms and the dads and the stunning lack of objectivity that seems to go hand in hand with parenting these days.

We start out exaggerating wildly about them when they are tiny – ‘The cutest baby in the whole world!‘ – because we think the pitch of our language should match the ferocity of our love. Then they become toddlers and we see everywhere in their ordinary achievements signs of genius because we are bewitched by the magic of milestones. Finally they go to school where teachers and testing and teams reveal they aren’t as perfectly well-rounded as we imagined, but we continue to applaud them indiscriminately just the same. This time because we are convinced it is the way to re-boost their self-assurance. It’s an American phenomenon, this party of praise, says Christine Gross-Loh in Parenting Without Borders. It’s also a relatively recent one.

I wasn’t raised like that. If telling it like it is were an Olympic sport, my mom would medal in it. Her matter-of-factness didn’t always make me feel warm and gooey, but it did give me a realistic perspective on myself. It helped me to appreciate what I was actually good at. And it encouraged me to work damn hard at what I wasn’t. I never felt like my mom supported me any less in her candor: she was my biggest advocate. What I felt, rather, is that she saw me more for who I was and grounded me, as a result, in that vision.

Which is what I hope to do for my own children. Being honest with them about their deficits as well as their gifts is a choice, personal and deliberate. I can’t watch my kid miss five out of five penalty shots and think he did a ‘Great job!’. I won’t tell him he did, either. I don’t want him to expect success around every corner just because he turns it. What I want for him is to learn how to find enjoyment in the things he loves but doesn’t excel at. To grow as a person by striving for what doesn’t come naturally. Most of all what I want for him is to see himself clearly and to take pride in the picture nonetheless.

True confidence stems as much from self-awareness as it does from self-esteem.

IMG_6126 2

This post is part of a ‘blogging carnival’ about cultural attitudes toward self-esteem and praise, inspired by the book Parenting Without Borders. Read the other participants’ thoughts at the links below:

Advertisements

24 Comments

Filed under parenting

cute, cuter, cutest

The baby isn’t cute. He is the cutest baby in the whole world. The toddler isn’t good. She is the best toddler on the planet. The second-grader isn’t smart. He is the smartest second-grader under the stratosphere. It’s high praise indeed – and a no doubt genuine reflection of the speaker’s individual perspective – but where does this language of excess leave the rest of our kids?

I often wonder why we feel the need to talk about our children in the superlative, a mode of speech that by its very nature relegates everything else in the same category to second fiddle. I know more people than I would care to admit who were forced, by an overzealous parent, to confirm that a given child was the most beautiful/adorable/amazing thing to grace the Earth. Ever. It wasn’t enough to acknowledge simply that he or she was lovely or good-natured or clever or any number of suitably laudatory traits. No, the praise literally had to include an element of peerlessness for it to pass muster.

Scan the comments on Facebook and you will see what I mean. It won’t take long to find a declaration that some unsuspecting kid is the best or the most of something or other. The deluge of ‘est’s makes sense. ‘Positives’ (‘my baby is cute’) often fail to capture adequately the right level of passion and ‘comparatives’ are too obviously mean-spirited. Nobody would post a picture with the caption: ‘my baby is cuter than yours’. Superlatives are safe because their target is much vaguer. Technically, you are saying that your baby is cuter than all babies everywhere, but because no direct comparator is named you can get away with it under a banner of general enthusiasm.

This tendency to exaggerate about the kids is interesting. In one sense, it is completely innocuous and understandable. We love our kids, we think they are extraordinary, we look at them with rose-tinted glasses (some of the time). Words are a powerful index of our feelings and we want the ones we use about them to reflect the pitch of those feelings as closely as possible. And yet, it is precisely because language is such a potent tool that we should make the effort to use it carefully. Over-egging the pudding, particularly in public forums, creates an unfortunate air of competition. There’s too much of that going around already.

What makes for a fascinating contrast is that we don’t describe ourselves or our own achievements in anything like this unrivaled way. In the adult world, there is room for more than one successful lawyer, attractive friend, loving aunt, happy couple or talented writer. We are competitive, to be sure, but we also seem able to celebrate each other without the oneupmanship and dripping hyperbole reserved for our offspring. If anything we are cautious, stingy even, with top-tier adjectives like ‘best’ and ‘most’. When they are wheeled out, they are the more meaningful for it.

One of the salient differences here is that grown-ups are objectively gauged all the time. For better or for worse, we know where we stand in the great scheme of things – in our jobs, in our relationships, in our mirrors – and there is usually evidence to back up the assessment. Most of us, who aren’t actually the best in the world at anything, can’t get away with claims to the contrary: we would be shot down in a heartbeat. Eyes would roll. Children, on the other hand, are spared from such exacting, literal, standards as they very well should be. This is liberating and maybe that’s just the point: for a short period of time, we can live with little creatures – little extensions of ourselves – who are deemed perfect simply because we say it is so.

In this way, of course, of course, statements like ‘this baby is the cutest baby in the whole wide world’ are not meant to be spiteful or even other-regarding for that matter, despite what the grammar suggests. They are simply subjective sentiments masquerading as objective facts. Understood – or at least I hope it’s understood – is the qualifier: ‘in my view’. And this makes it a lot more palatable because you are supposed to think that your baby or your sister’s baby or your best friend’s baby is the cutest baby in the whole wide world. Aren’t you?

I don’t know. Children seem to occupy a class of society where objectivity, privileged at almost every other turn, is all of a sudden un-welcomed. More than that: it’s actually frowned upon. A bias towards one’s own in this regard is not only expected, but actively encouraged. I get uncomfortable looks when I speak too honestly about my kids sometimes, about their flaws and foibles of which there are many (‘He’s quite bad at drawing’, ‘She’s a little obsessive compulsive’, ‘His head is huge’). I’ve seen other women get the looks too, those who dare to regard their newborns with the conclusion: ‘he’s…alright’.

The discomfort lies in the incongruity between the belief that there is something pristinely beautiful about children as a whole and the reality that not every child is a manifestation of every aspect of this beauty. I genuinely feel that all kids are adorable and interesting in their own ways. The true beauty, however, lies in the originality of each and this is exactly what is masked and missed by generic, superlative comments that put one child at the top of the pile at the expense of the others. I think my kids are pretty great most of the time, I’m their mother I kind of have to. But they certainly aren’t the cutest in the world or the smartest or the best behaved. And you won’t hear me saying otherwise.

Leave a comment

Filed under parenting