A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Praise

By Christopher WallOctober 12, 2013

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Praise

1. You Love Me. I Love Me.

About a year ago I realized, to my surprise, that I was about to pick a fight with my mother-in-law at the dinner table because she’d complimented my one-and-a-half-year-old son toddling around her kitchen.

“Why can’t I call him agile?” she was asking.

“Because he’s not.”

“But ... he seems agile to me.”

It was too late to stop myself. I was already laying out the evidence. My son Eamon had half a dozen playmates we saw all the time. He was the least agile among them and, at 14 months, had been the last to walk. I suggested, since she hadn’t been around a child in a while, that she might really be saying “Wow! I forgot how agile an average toddler is!” But that’s a pretty lame compliment. Probably not worth exclaiming over dinner. She thought I was trying to take the praise out of her praise and started to defend him against me. Why, she wondered, wouldn’t I let her compliment him? What besides a superlative could capture what she felt about her grandson? I didn’t really have an answer.

As parents we react against the weaknesses of our upbringing, thinking of ourselves in moments of self-flattery as some next-generation Holden out by a cliff, saving children from one danger but inevitably exposing them to others. My mother can’t recall a single word of praise growing up, and corrected her father’s mistake by singing our praises in outlandish ways and saying “I love you” so often that my sister imposed a daily limit that she struggled to observe. I’ve moved in the opposite direction. I can’t tolerate inaccurate praise directed at my son and have come to believe that love, in a sense, is about being specific. I have an odd fear that, if I don’t keep my facts straight, he may meet himself on a street corner someday after he grows up and wonder who he is.

I first encountered what I thought was my doppelgänger 20 years ago in a stranger’s living room in Delaware. I was on tour with the college glee club over spring break and was being hosted by an alum for the night. As he got drinks for us in the kitchen, I flipped through a copy of our alumni magazine.

“Christopher Wall, a Dartmouth senior and son of Allan Wall Jr. was in the running for a Rhodes Scholarship this winter.”

That was odd. I knew a student by that name — me — and he wasn’t in the running for a Rhodes Scholarship at all. Was this a misprint? I kept reading:

Many of you will recall with sadness how we lost Allan to leukemia not long after graduation. His widow, Hannah, and children Christopher and Kim live in New Haven, and the Dartmouth tradition obviously continues to flourish in the Wall household. Well done, Christopher.

That was me all right. It’s heartwarming to receive praise, but you usually want it to be for something you’ve done, and some stubborn facts were getting in the way: (1) I was a junior. Juniors don’t apply for Rhodes Scholarships. (2) They’re awarded in the fall. You can’t be “in the running” in the winter. (3) The laughter of the selection committee would have deafened children a mile away when they read about my “literary and scholastic attainment,” so I had no intention of applying.

I had no memories of my dad growing up, so I imagined a series of identities for him that were ultimately unsatisfying, because they just highlighted what I missed most at the time. In college, as a way of getting a more realistic sense of him, I’d befriended some of his classmates and started glancing through the alumni magazine to see what they were up to. I was embarrassed that night because the classmate who’d written in about me was high-powered, on his way to a deanship at the University of Michigan. He was just the kind of person I longed to impress, his Christmas letters each year describing a family so full of accomplishment and humility that I spent a few hours wanting to be them. Now I was desperate to be the person I’d just read about.

I ripped the page out of the magazine and stuffed it in my pocket, as my host came back with lemonade, and tried to piece together what had happened. I’d received a form letter that fall, along with maybe a quarter of my class, stating that my GPA was high enough to consider applying for a fellowship. One of the many listed was a Rhodes. I’d mentioned this off-handedly to my mother. She and my dad’s classmates corresponded over the holidays, so I imagine she’d written on her Christmas cards how I was headed — already — for greatness. It wasn’t hard to see why these things happened. My mom sacrificed a lot to raise us, settling for years of bad jobs interspersed with years of bad boyfriends, but she was sure there was one thing in her life — us — that remained perfect. Without a lot of good news you sometimes start manufacturing your own, kind of like a karmic PR campaign that, in our family, at least, centered on me. Now I couldn’t imagine anything I could accomplish that would surpass what had already appeared in print.

Occasionally I meet someone else who’s weathered the extravagant praise of a parent, like the writer who published six books of poetry but whose dad brags that she’s won a Guggenheim. That would certainly be miraculous and worth bragging about, because she’s never applied. This kind of praise misconstrues facts “accidentally on purpose,” and a parent has plausible deniability (“I must have misheard you”) until a pattern sets in; though, from their point of view, they really don’t know what the problem is. If praise masquerades as an objective assessment that really conveys the subjective feeling of their love — that boundless, intoxicating feeling — why not sacrifice a few details? Heck, why not sacrifice them all?

A sense of truth — the difference between potential and accomplishment, dream and fact — can be the first casualty in families like this. Growing up I felt like a private eye tracking down unseemly rumors about me, adapting a private eye’s worldview along the way: dark, noirish and suspicious of anyone who claimed to “know” what “happened” about “anything.” I was desperate for praise but paranoid about its ability to manipulate. If you paid me a compliment I’d love you for a second, then squint suspiciously, spit out an imaginary cigar and ask “What do you want, anyway?”

As my girlfriend and I became serious, she spent time with my mom and heard some of the extravagant stories of my childhood. I was concerned if she rolled her eyes any harder she might injure them. Was I really so verbal and wise — and jaded — at age two, after my father died, that I offered my mom irrefutable proof that Santa was a fake? Did I really teach myself to read music at age five? Become a concert-grade pianist without practicing? My girlfriend called bullshit on the highlight reel of my childhood. I didn’t believe half this stuff either, but I believed some of it. That is, I wanted the option in my early 20s of believing it some nights, to lie in bed after a lame day as a secretary and revel in my secret specialness that had not yet been recognized by the world. Doubting the myths of your childhood can be more destabilizing than reading you’re a finalist for a prize you didn’t apply for. Our parents are the historians of our lives. We want to think we have a coherent identity that stretches back to birth, and for the first time I stared back and saw what looked an awful lot like nothing.

Careless praise and exaggerated stories are just a quirky part of growing up in some families, but they can be damaging when they amplify the weird romance kids already have about themselves — the secret identities and magical powers they know they have that adults around them can’t see. I can’t walk five minutes in Prospect Park without seeing some girl spin around, sprinkle herself with magic pixie dust and chant I am the princess, I am the princess, I am the princess. I needed no prompting myself to think I was the next Ron Guidry. I had a natural slider that was unhittable — and uncontrollable — and stayed up each night before I pitched imagining how I’d record 18 straight strikeouts, end the game by myself, and set a record. Onlookers would gasp as they saw a small thing of perfection in a fallen world, or the evening would be a tough slog.

You can guess which one it was.

Our first task as children is to dream ourselves into being and, oddly enough, we pretend to be other people to do that, as if life were a drama filled with larger-than-life characters first glimpsed from afar. We try on identities, just as I assigned one to my dad and was given one by my mom, until we find one that fits, but then face the task of insinuating ourselves into a world that’s indifferent or hostile to us or just more complicated than we imagined. That, of course, is the day childhood starts to end, when we may start to suspect that the praise echoing in our ears sounds an awful lot like lying. 

2. All Hail Praise!

I had no idea there might be a cultural component to all this, that the fantasies families weave around their children might have changed over time, until I was expecting a son myself and read some parenting books. Apparently I grew up at the height of the self-esteem movement, and well-intentioned but excessive praise has harmed a number of children. That, at least, is the claim of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Nurture Shock. In the first chapter they trace the self-esteem movement back to Nathaniel Branden, who asserted in 1969 that self-esteem is our most important attribute. California even created a self-esteem task force, thinking if it could raise the self-esteem of its citizens, they’d “do everything from lower dependence on welfare to decrease teenage pregnancy.” Soon we were handing out medals to every participant at sporting events and not keeping score. Competition is too competitive —our children’s egos are at stake.

But can self-esteem be pinned on someone like a ribbon? Is it an effect or a cause of competence? Does telling children to feel good about themselves actually make them feel good about themselves? The authors, citing research from Carol Dweck, suggest that constant, overly general praise can have the opposite of the intended effect. Their parenting advice, to treat the mind like a muscle that needs exercise, echoes Seneca, our oldest self-help guru, who insisted that the mind be exercised “day and night.” (All of these writers value effort above all; for Seneca, it is the one way we surpass even the gods.) Constant praise makes children both fragile and risk averse. Since they aren’t praised for their effort, the one thing they control, children take failure as a sign that they were never intelligent to begin with. I got a sense of how far off the deep end we’d gone when an NYU psychiatry professor was trotted out late in the chapter to stress what should have been obvious. Praise, she says, “has to be based on a real thing.”

Well, what has praise been based on?

It’s inevitably used to manipulate behavior and instill values, but what exactly should we value? Should I praise my son’s beauty? That seems odd, since it’s the result of factors beyond his control, from genetics to prenatal nutrition to my cultural biases. Should I compliment him instead on how he presents himself in public, matching his plaid shorts and striped shirt with aplomb? Once he starts school, should I praise his innate intelligence, the effort he spends studying for a test, or the grade he receives? (I could be sly and keep changing what I value so I can compliment him regardless of the result.) Should I pass judgment on him as a person (“You’re awesome!”) or on a task he’s done (“Thanks for doing the dishes!”)? Should I praise his potential (“You’re so brilliant at piano!”) even though I can’t assess that potential, or what he accomplishes by using it, even though I can’t assess that either? Should I make open-ended pronouncements (“You’re special!”) and let him decide whether he’s special to me or to the world? Tell him he’s agile, though he may be below average, because it “feels” true? The choices become baffling the more I think about it. Maybe I should stick to generalities, or be as specific as possible, keeping in mind that there’s an upper limit to the behaviors you can praise in a day — exceed what I call the Maximum Praise Rate and your child may roll his eyes and stop believing you. Maybe I should withhold comments altogether, so he’ll have to assess his own performance and decide whether he’s satisfied or not, instead of doing things for the adoration of others.

Think about this too much and your praise can sound engineered, its manipulations too visible, but being spontaneous can create other problems. About six months ago when I skyped with my sister’s family, my nephew started blowing raspberries to Eamon, who was too young to conduct a conversation. My son blew one back, and they happily traded farty noises until my mom, hovering in the background, clapped and yelled “Great copying!!” One of the pleasures of parenting is reliving the pleasures of youth, but you can’t break the Rule of Proportionality — not only is there a Maximum Praise Rate but also a Maximum Intensity. My mom was so much more excited than they were that they stopped and stared at her, their fun drowned out.

For the parents interviewed in Nurture Shock, praise is a practical attempt to bolster their children’s confidence before they go out to battle the world, so any amount of affirmation can be justified as long as it works. You might call this the Bluster Theory of Praise. At first it doesn’t sound unreasonable. We all know people whose self-promotion allows them to achieve what their capabilities wouldn’t on their own. The downside — in addition to having irritating children — is that their confidence won’t be based on something that should inspire confidence. They get their way not through their ability but through their aggression and can mistake one thing for the other. It can also start an arms race in which every child is inevitably considered a genius.

Observers have started pushing back against this. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Christopher Ferguson questions the evidence supporting Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Along the way, he also explores how that theory has infiltrated our wider consciousness and combined with America’s egalitarian strain. After all, no one I know can name the intelligences Gardner enumerated, or the limitations in IQ testing that he criticized. The idea that there are lots of ways to be intelligent, though, is accepted without comment, because it has such wonderful implications: (1) the gifted can’t be gifted in all ways, so the great really aren’t that great; and (2) if you’re deficient in one way you’re probably above average, or even gifted, in another. If you haven’t discovered that secret talent, your only problem is that you haven’t looked hard enough. If you can’t celebrate an actual accomplishment, celebrate your potential — that is, something you might do in the future. And if you do something in the future and aren’t recognized for it, that still doesn’t matter because history is filled with special people who weren’t considered special in their time. This kind of reasoning is seductive not only to parents in competitive communities, who gird their children for battle, but in the kind of New Agey Protestantism I grew up in, which eschews battles all together — at least on Sunday mornings — and stresses that each child is made equally in God’s image and worth equal praise even if they haven’t performed what you might call a “good deed.”

Even as we feed this to our children, the number of Baby Einstein toys we toss in the crib betrays our anxiety that we actually understand how merciless the world is. As we play Muzak versions of Mozart, hoping to make them more intelligent, we simultaneously whisper to them not to worry, they’re brilliant for just being who they are. We enroll them in more activities than they can tolerate, then praise them to make up for it, our exclamations over their performance heard, whether we intend it or not, as the parameters of our love. What do we end up with? Praise as Training so a loved one is “easier to love.” Praise as Addiction. Praise as Apology. Praise as a Cell Phone Ringing Six Times a Day.

3. In Case of a Praise Emergency Please Break Glass

As the culture of self-esteem has been amplified by changes in technology, large swaths of the country seem to be under the impression that practicing for an hour in the basement should be enough to get them on America’s Got Talent. Deciding you don’t have talent doesn’t mean much, though, because you can always dream about landing on a reality show. The romance we have as children with our own potential doesn’t have to end anymore. Even the unemployed and depressed are just a YouTube hit away from celebrity.

Work hard and you can be famous — that promise has always drawn young people to cities like New York. But these days not working at all can make you famous too, and what looks like overnight success happens just often enough for everyone to buy into it. I just noticed, as I write these words, that Emma Koenig, who I taught as a high school student in NYU’s precollege program, was profiled in The New York Times. After she graduated with an acting degree from Tisch she blogged about living at home, excessive drinking, and bad hookups while pondering what it meant to be successful until — suddenly, it seemed — she landed a $10,000 advance for a memoir and was in Los Angeles completing a deal with a production company. She acknowledged the paradox that questioning success and documenting her romantic and professional failures could actually lead to success, a boyfriend, and an apartment in Los Angeles. But she, of course, is an exception, made possible because the artwork she’s selling is herself.

You couldn’t become a classical violinist that way, could you? Can you sit in your parents’ house with any dream at all and dream hard enough for it to come true? A few years ago I worked with another precollege student who thought that, insisting that all you have to do is decide what you want to be, and if that’s your dream, you’ll be it. Effort, for her, was all in the deciding — a daunting task when you have a galaxy full of options. I encounter students like her often enough that I have my astronaut question and basketball question ready.

It’s really the same question.

“So ... you can be anything? Without limits? Like, you can just decide to be an astronaut?”

“Yeah. I mean, if it’s my dream.”

“Really? Even if your body gets motion sickness and you aren’t, say, great at calculus?”

She stared at me like I had two heads.

See, my question never actually works. They just take the fallback position. If they fail they just have a sudden realization that it wasn’t their dream to begin with. It’s the magic and tragedy of childhood to think it’s not luck or talent or work but the fervor of your belief that matters. That if you have a dream, and it doesn’t come true, maybe you weren’t dreaming hard enough. But at some point you aren’t the sum of your potential anymore but all the decisions you’ve made.

She was repeating a sentiment we’ve all seen on mugs and calendars: “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Parents should know this isn’t true but say it anyway, because they suspect if their children don’t think it’s true they’ll settle for what’s in front of them and not reach their potential. I call this elaborate second-guessing the Game Theory of Praise. One should be careful when offering a platitude to a child, though, because it can become an ideology she uses to read the world. I was trying to improve her paper, not challenge her worldview, but they were oddly intertwined. Though reading is a close collaboration between a reader and text, it can only start when you notice the difference between what you see and what you want to see. She was supposed to be analyzing the essays of James Baldwin but had ended up with the bizarre claim that Baldwin couldn’t achieve his dream because his dream wasn’t unique, or uniquely his. (It was hard to follow, though one would think that race had something to do with it.) When I questioned her, she put her arms in front of her, as if guarding an imaginary egg, and said “This is my idea,” as if the fact that she had one should be celebrated, regardless of what it was about.

Did she expect praise because she’d completed a task? Feel vulnerable, because I was holding her to a standard she wasn’t used to? I’ve struggled to figure out how to offer criticism to fragile students. One way, of course, is to treat them as if they’re fragile. That’s one impression I got while training to be a teacher, when a director admonished me not to write comments using a red pen because that might traumatize them, as if I were a schoolmarm correcting their thinking. I should also avoid writing between the lines of their text because that was invasive and penetrating — as if their writing were a stand-in for their body and inserting a comment was a form of violence metaphorically akin to rape. That director is gone now, and my department chair, a Vietnam vet, has instructed us to tell them “no” as often as possible. That, in a sense, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they are only going to be graded on the result they produce and not on their effort or what they feel about it. Like the approach to praise I’m trying to figure out as a new parent, my department chair thinks being as specific as possible in evaluating their performance is a kind of love. Because when you’re not specific, we all start to resemble each other, and a white high school student, most likely from the suburbs, can assume the obstacles standing in the way of her dreams must be the same as a black gay writer from Harlem two generations removed.

4. The Ground Is a Long Way Down

Unlike the kids profiled in Nurture Shock, it wasn’t failure that did me in but success. A year after being falsely accused of being a Rhodes finalist I did win a fellowship, but it marked an end and not a beginning. Like many college seniors, I had no idea what I was going to do. It was the early 1990s and not yet acceptable to move back home. (Our family lived in a basement apartment with two windows, so I could have lived in a cardboard box and considered it a step up.) So I applied for a Fulbright. To improve my chances, I pitched a project in a non-English speaking country, Germany, since I’d studied in Berlin. I wrote about my desire to explore “Brecht’s theoretical praxis,” whatever that is, and whether socially critical theater could work in the United States, something I could bullshit about with a drink in my hand but didn’t have the vocabulary or interest to study in Germany. None of this seemed disingenuous to me. Many students consider school a game in which you perform well doing things you don’t care about in exchange for praise — good grades, a stellar recommendation — that you can trade in like an amusement park token for a larger prize you haven’t yet decided on. The goal in grabbing a fellowship was to fund myself for a year and get a line on my resume so I could go after my next conquest until ... well, I’m not really sure. It had to end at some point, but you don’t really think about that at the time. A nice house, a Tony Award — whatever it is, it would come with enough status that the praise would never stop echoing in my ears.

As graduation approached I was shocked to hear I’d won a DAAD scholarship, a mirror scholarship funded by the German government based on the Fulbright application. For the first time I started thinking of the real Berlin, not the Berlin of my dreams, and the winter I’d endured there in 1990 after the Wall fell, as West and East Berliners struggled with the most basic questions of identity. (Were they still the same people? Could they merge as equals, or would one swallow up or bankrupt the other?) I recalled my isolation as I’d wandered the city at night, eyeing political demonstrations from a distance: my depression, which accompanies me everywhere, exacerbated by my almost comic frustrations with the language. (My professor deducted a point for each grammatical mistake, so I received a negative score on some of my papers.) I’d started to feel a sense of vertigo when the subway approached each morning to take me to the Freie Universität, the platform tilting sideways and drawing me toward the tracks untill I had to stand behind a pole and face the other direction, singing “Last Dance” by Donna Summer or some other disco hit that was upbeat and saccharine enough to fill my imagination until the panic attack subsided, the doors opened, and I stumbled aboard.

Now, as I imagined the challenge of a year over there — finding housing on my own, contacting professors on my own, riding the subway — I started to get vertigo all over again, as if recalling a panic attack could cause a panic attack, and I began to look for a way out. I told friends I wasn’t prepared to work on the project and didn’t care about it anymore. “Don’t worry,” they said. “No one will check up on you! Just get over there and do what you want!” The problem, of course, was that no one would check up on me. I felt a bit like Aesop’s “Boastful Athlete,” the blustering Greek who claimed he’d jumped a huge distance in the city of Rhodes until someone got tired of him, drew a line in the sand, and said “Here’s your Rhodes, now jump!” The fable ends there, but I imagine he fell on his ass before a jeering crowd.

I turned the scholarship down.

Some of my classmates were perplexed. Many were pissed. My dad’s best friend from college, who I’m named after, was unforgiving.

“You don’t get a second chance to matter.”

My backup plan felt pathetic, even to me, so I didn’t tell him. I’d follow my girlfriend to Chicago, where she’d enrolled in law school, and try to write the next Great American Play. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my fall had just begun. I’d work in the jewelry district for a designer who kept Enya’s Watermark on repeat eight hours a day. I sat at a desk with paste, scissors, and construction paper — things I’d last used in elementary school — and cut images from glossy magazines that idealized the life you’d have if you had just the right jewelry, putting together an idea book for my boss to show her clients, those newly engaged couples who’d stream in, drunk on love and fantasies of what marriage would be like. I’d usher them into her office and close the door so they could imagine what kind of ring might go with their new lives — like children, married couples too must dream themselves into being — then put away my construction paper at the end of the day and take the Metra back to Hyde Park, the syncopated rhythm of Enya’s Sail away Sail away Sail away repeating in my head so long that it had moved long past irritation to become a kind of unwelcome prayer, hoping my head might finally empty out by the time I got home, finished dinner, and sat down to write.

When I think of the high school student I met at the writing center, I think of the questions I had at the time but refrained from asking: How do we know what our dreams are or where they come from? Are they the articulation of our deepest longings, the foundation of our identity, perhaps the only thing that’s truly ours? Or are they handed down from our parents and shaped by the praise we receive as children? Perhaps they’re a borrowed idea about what fulfillment means, a cultural cliché, best examined as an artifact of youth. It’s an impossible question, but if we don’t attempt to answer it we risk dedicating ourselves to a dream only to wake up one morning to discover it was never ours to begin with.

As I write this, on an August night before the start of another semester, I think of the generations of young people who keep pouring into the city, a few of whom will end up as my students at NYU. To them, the city may still be the nation’s “symbol of aspiration and faith,” as E.B. White put it, but it’s also a city that can no longer dream big on its own. Follow the headlines long enough and you’ll see the pattern: the ARC tunnel canceled; public vitriol accompanying the building of each new bike lane; a new subway line, 83 years after it was proposed, finally inching up Second Avenue, all of which suggests that ambition for middle-aged cities — and perhaps their middle-aged inhabitants — means making more efficient use of what’s already within your grasp. Farther out, in a realm few of my students ever acknowledge, politicians quarrel over what adolescent utopian dream of ourselves we should latch onto instead of delving into the specifics of governing a country with declining resources.

What I would like to give my son, in the midst of all this, seems woefully small: the idea that words and facts actually have a definition and aren’t infinitely bendable, that they aren’t just tools to use in a covert attempt to manipulate the world, and that we have a fundamental obligation, whether we’re talking to children or students or some potential swing vote in Iowa, to not mislead or be careless with our words. I’d like my son to develop a realistic enough self-image that he won’t fall apart the day he runs into himself on a street corner, like I did when I was graduating from college and, confronted with the fact that I couldn’t function on my own, concluded that all the praise I’d received must have been meant for an imposter.

Recently my son started asking to “talk day,” a request to narrate everything he’s done since getting up, so I’ve described in loving detail all the vignettes I’ve observed — how exactly he built that tower of blocks or put an avocado on his head — pausing to ask a question or see if he can complete a phrase. It’s both a miracle and a burden to think that the most fundamental thing about us, our identity, is an act of close collaboration, and that my child is learning to recognize himself, in part, through my words. In my own fumbling way, with half-remembered details I observed guzzling coffee, I strive to give him the day itself, in all its minutia, and not my feelings about it. The mundane, too, can be filled with love. He has enough time to dream on his own.


Christopher Wall is a playwright and essayist.

LARB Contributor

When he’s not praising his children, Christopher writes plays and nonfiction. His play Dreams Of the Washer King debuted Off Broadway (Backstage Critic’s Pick) and had its LA premiere last year. His non-fiction has appeared in Poets & Writers, The Missouri Review, and other publications, and three of his works have been cited as a Notable Essay of the Year in the Best American Essays anthology. He was a fellow in nonfiction at the Norman Mailer Center in 2012. You can read more about his current projects at www.christopherwall.org.


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