This is a true story. One name has been changed to protect the innocent but otherwise it is all true.
Back when I taught preschool my head teacher blew my mind one day when we were sitting watching the kids run around the indoor play space. She was telling me how early childhood educators were against praise.
“See, when you praise them you are telling them that your approval is conditional,” she told me. “Plus you’re creating more need for it. It’s never enough. If you say it’s good this time and don’t next time, they think whatever they did next time is a failure. You have to let them build their own internal approval systems.”
“But then what do you say to them? What do you say when they show you a picture or something like that?” I was skeptical.
“You describe it.”
Just then David Dretz* trotted by and he happened to be wearing new shoes.
“Hey David!” Amy called. “Look at you! You have brand new shoes!”
David stopped, looking down at his shoes as if he’d forgotten that he was wearing them.
“I got them last night,” he said. “My mommy took me after school.”
“They are certainly bright blue shoes!” Amy said.
David grinned then skipped off sunnier than he had been before.
“There you go,” Amy said to me. “He just wants to be seen.”
Praise is easy but seeing someone is hard. It’s much more effortful. You can toss off a compliment (“Nice shoes!”) much more easily than you can stop a minute to focus and see the shoes.
I think about this a lot. I think about it with my kids and with my friends. And I think about it when I leave a conversation with someone feeling slightly rumpled and disgruntled and realize it’s because I feel like they could have been talking to anyone and it wasn’t ME they were talking to at all. We all want to be seen and acknowledged. Don’t get me wrong — I know praise has its place. I’m not even really trying to talk about praise so much as I’m talking about phoning it in with our friends and family.
It feels lousy when no one sees you. It feels lonely. We all want people to see our metaphorical shoes, really see them and see us wearing them and note that we are HERE.
I was just thinking about that today.
* This name is an amalgam of two kids who had wonderful alliterative names that I wish I could use but recognize would be inappropriate on the internet because they don’t need to google themselves and find some stranger chatting about them on the internet because that would be weird.