Friday 13 December 2019

'I was praised as a child artist. Only I wasn't.'

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Should young children be praised every day? According to children's charity Barnardo's, 67 per cent of adults think they should be so praised for their achievements. And Barnardo's thinks that's a very good thing.

I wonder. And then I wonder if my wondering is archaic, drawing on an out-of-date idea which reverts to my own childhood: that children should not be over-praised.

Yes, although the old wives' tale intoned "credit where credit is due", there would also have been an almost obsessive fear of "having your head turned". Mustn't get a "swelled head"! Mustn't think too much of yourself! "Making much" of anyone, especially a young person, would have evoked disapproval.

Was this fear of over-praising anyone a kind of class weapon to keep the peasants and workers in their place? (Like Mrs Alexander's hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, where the second verse reads: "The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them both to love Him/And ordered their estate."

Another phrase - more English than Irish - was also in currency: reproving those who had "ideas above their station", which I have even heard, jokingly, used by English people speaking French: "elle avait des idees au-dessus de sa gare" - the joke being that it makes no sense in French.

Or is the notion that overpraise leads to a sense of entitlement and the brattish ways of "the spoilt child" just common sense and human experience? I find it hard to decide, and in this, as in so much else, theory and practice are often far apart.

In practice, it is natural to praise the child. When the little girl comes to you with her painting and says "that's what I did in class today", how can you not enthuse wildly over the brightly coloured daubs? Of course your natural response is to praise and show pleasure.

Even in my remote childhood, when the more austere views held sway - and there was a great fear about "spoiling" a child - my little drawings and paintings were fulsomely praised by my family. "That's very, very good, Mary", and various aunts would even laugh with pleasure at some comical cartoon I had composed.

Yes, at the age of 10, I thought quite highly of myself as an artist: and then came the downside. Year after year, season after season, I entered the Caltex competition for child art, and year after year, I was absolutely bewildered to come nowhere. No prizes. No runner-up awards. Not even a mention in any of the lists. I was crestfallen. My family had all praised my artistic efforts, so why shouldn't I win a prize?

The iron entered my soul early. Praise from your loved ones and those around you may mean nothing whatsoever to the world; despite the high esteem in which your efforts are held by your nearest and dearest, the universe may remain indifferent to your endeavours.

And only later did I see that the stern approach of not over-praising a child was to save the child from later disappointment. "Expect nothing and you will not be disappointed," ran another adage of low expectations. "Napoleon never prepared for a victory, but for a defeat" - and so he met his Waterloo.

Praise is something the human soul yearns for. Observe the actors in a play when they take the curtain call. The applause is ambrosia to the soul. I have an opera-going friend who refuses to applaud the singers at the end of an operatic performance: "Why should I? They're only doing their job. Nobody applauds me when I do my job." This is logical and rational, but not natural. The urge to clap is innate. To bestow praise may be as strong an urge as to yearn for it.

In one way, I am all for praising a child, because it will encourage the child and make her feel appreciated and loved. But then I think: what if she meets with disappointments? What if she finds that people can be nasty, bullying and spiteful? Does praise protect her from that? What if she discovers that the world is full of people who are cleverer, more gifted and more adept at manipulating the glittering prizes than she is?

And there's another disadvantage to praise. Many moons ago, Germaine Greer warned that women were far too apt to be "people-pleasers". They smiled too much. They wanted others to like them and respond nicely. And this is what stalled women's achievements, because the individuals who achieved great things were often cussed, difficult, obstinate, awkward, seldom smiled and may not have washed under their armpits. Achievement is not won through praise but through dogged determination and some innate self-belief.

But does praise help self-belief? It must do, but only when given proportionately. The world's great schools and academies, from Eton College to Harvard and Yale, place an early emphasis on excellence, and the disciplines which yield excellence. The veteran ballerina Dame Beryl Grey told me that Ninette de Valois, the Wicklow woman who founded the Royal Ballet, was the hardest taskmaster you could ever encounter, and seldom praised her young dancers: but one tiny word of approval meant the world to you.

So, yes, praise the child, but make her aware, somewhere along the line, that it will not always be thus, and she mustn't depend upon the praise of others for her sense of self. That must come from character, and character is sometimes built by understanding difficulties and overcoming hardships.


Irish Independent

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