'Lavishing praise on our children we could be doing them more harm than good'- Miriam O'Callaghan
Stop praising and just concentrate on raising your kids by simply being in tune with them, writes Miriam O'Callaghan
It is a spring day and I am in a winter coat, in a park and Olly Murs is being murdered.
On the next bench there is a child drinking half a cup of hot chocolate. His mother is wiping the other half off a blue jacket. It is the angel blue worn by small European royals on the cover of Hello!. It is also expensive. I know this because his mother is spitting "230 feckin euro, 230 feckin euro" into her phone.
Now, she's adding kissing to the wiping. "Don't worry, love. What matters is you didn't burn yourself." We exchange a look that says 'this is what we do'; use kissing as diversion therapy for envisioned strangulation.
Yards away, on another bench, that's exactly what is happening to Olly Murs. And in broad daylight. The strangler looks to be around 11. In her shorts, she is displaying vintage ire. The kind that mutilated Irish children in the 1970s. "Amazing, awesome. Isn't she fantastic. You're going to be a star. You're made for The X Factor. Isn't she?" says the strangler's mother to her likely granny. They look like women who wouldn't hurt a fly, never mind oversee the ritual murder of Mrs Murs's Oliver Stanley.
In schools, and society generally, 'giving our children confidence' is in. Those of us who grew up in a time when if you found the cure for cancer, you'd be told put it in the press, in case you'd be considered too big for your boots, are all for it. In my own case, only to a point, because I agree with the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz's view that by lavishing admiration and praise on our children we could be doing them more harm than good. Referring to the soundtrack of superlatives at the playground, he believes that constant praise can actually damage confidence and performance in later life.
"We dole out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism," he writes. "Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what fantastic kids we have - but it isn't doing much for a child's sense of self." His advice? Stop praising our children and start listening to them.
Recently, I had a bizarre listening experience involving a friend-since-high-babies' child. He's Small Liam. Not-his-real-name. Seventeen. The height and heft of the Maitreya Buddha secreted along the Silk Road. On our bookclub (wine-drinking) night - as I raised the red book of the month to my lips, I felt decidedly quare, kinda tingly, with a bit of a hurry in the heart. Taking myself off to the garden, after a few minutes, the freakshow in my chest wound down.
Then another reader arrived. "God," she says "I need air. My head and chest are pounding." Back at the stove in the kitchen we tell our host, the Buddha's mother, who pantomime-slaps herself on the forehead, saying "I know what it is. It drives Big Liam (husband, not-his-real-name) nuts. Nearly had to take him to casualty last week. I'll switch it off." Switch off what, we wonder? "The Schumann Resonance. On the laptop. For Small Liam. For concentration. For the Leaving."
For the uninitiated - like us - the Schumann Resonance is the frequency of the magnetic resonance of the Earth. Never mind that at 7.83 hertz it is imperceptible to the human ear. The internet makes the impossible possible and makes the Schumann Resonance a sonic miracle for mind and body. Apparently. "Leaps and bounds he's come on. Leaps and bounds. I leave it playing all night." Big Liam is sleeping in the family room and will be until July. He wants to avoid both casualty and a coronary.
On the night, we discuss our offspring. It's long accepted we got the eejits. We stand dumb on the sidelines as more blessed parents gush like geysers about their offspring who are constantly first, best, talented, beautiful, popular. And kind? Why, they are its quintessence. Building houses in Africa? Not for them. These lustrous children shelter endangered tribes under their own stretched skin, moisturised by Holy Honey from Holy Bees, at enclaves three days north of Ulaanbaatar.
They go to the Gaeltacht for a week and return a cinnire. After a fortnight? They're the reincarnation of Mairtin O Cadhain. They pick up a violin and sounds of Maxim Vengerev or Martin Cahill fly from the strings. At our houses? No virtuoso sonatas or slow airs. The neighbours report us for torturing the cats.
In a few weeks the Leaving Cert will kick off. It's no longer an exam but a national condition, complete with Survival Guides. Not alone for the students but entire families. Tidy the clutter. Make your house zen. Give space to the candidate. Make siblings understanding. Burn grapefruit oil for alertness, lavender for calm and concentration, rose for wellbeing. Turn lead to gold.
When I did my Leaving, my mother sent me out with a banana sandwich, a string bag and a miraculous medal, hunting me to the gate with "it's only an exam, you'll be grand, you can do a small shop on the way home".
And, yes parents, your darlings might come home from the exams, or Ulaanbaatar, a bit anxious or disappointed. If they do, take a moment. Don't dive in to rescue them. This is their pain, anxiety, experience, not yours. The fact is, as parents, we cannot fix our children's problems. We cannot save them from every bad thing the world or people in it will throw at them. It comes as a shock to parents to find we cannot make our children happy. Nor is it our job. We can only teach them to mind their happiness and to know it is not a permanent condition.
We teach them best by our example. Do we listen? Are we present? Do we show compassion to others and to ourselves? Do we laugh? Do we forgive? Do we mind and nourish our relationships? Are we strong? Courageous? What is our definition of 'well'? Even when the unimaginable happens, do we allow it to annihilate us? Or are we resilient? Not resilience in the imbecile sense of 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' but in the way we make sure to maintain a sense of self, hope, dignity that allows us go on? Overall, when our children look at us, who do they see?
I get home from the bookclub after midnight. There's galoot lying out on his bed, reading, surrounded by maths books. "Maths exam tomorrow," he says. "So why are you reading Spinoza?" I ask. "Cos I'm alive," comes the answer. Turns out he knows all about the Schumann Resonance and that Nasa has created a little gadget that allows astronauts feel it in space. "So they don't feel so alien." Hhmm.
"We feel and know we are eternal," he reads aloud.
He's my son. I'm listening.