Take This With My Compliments

By Gregory Keer

My wife and I had modest ambitions about decorating our home before our children arrived. Given our overstuffed work lives, we wanted our home to have clean lines, an emphasis on negative space, and blues and greens to give a feeling of serenity.

By the time our third child reached elementary school, it was clear he had different design ideas. The clean lines have been replaced by shelves full of outsized Lego masterpieces, the negative spaces filled with craft materials and handy tools, and the blues and greens obscured by the wild patterns of fabrics employed in making countless handmade ski hats and movie-night blankets. Serenity? No, that went away in not having one tabletop, cabinet, or couch free of clutter.

“Unless you put some of this junk back in your room, I’m taking it all to the garage,” I said to my son one day in a fit of fastidiousness.

“I promise I’ll put it away tomorrow,” he replied, not looking up from the newly-assembled cardboard doghouse he was installing next to our couch.

As I stared at the giant canine box with an irritated look, my wife, who has developed a disturbingly higher tolerance for messiness, pulled me aside.

“It’s a pretty good piece of work, isn’t it?” she reasoned.

“It’s great,” I said sarcastically. “Let’s do the whole room in storage containers.”

Ari heard this, a tad hurt. “If you don’t like it, I can take it down — even though I worked on it all day.”

Feeling sheepish — which happens so often I might as well join a wooly herd in New Zealand — I walked over to inspect the structure. Indeed, it was surprisingly well designed. It had a geometrically balanced pitched roof, a circular window that used a clear plastic take-out top instead of glass, and an accurately measured opening perfect for our small dog. It was even painted with a cool blue that satisfied my color preference. Frankly, I was so impressed by my 12-year-old’s ingenuity, I forgot my stuffy intolerance to his messy creations.

“This is cool, kiddo.”

To this, my son nodded imperceptibly and walked away.

I turned to my wife, “What was that? I said I liked it.”

“Truthfully, after hearing you complain all the time, the compliment gets a little lost.”

So, I went to my son’s room to talk to him where he was already busy playing around with some string and an old climbing carabiner to create a pulley. He did something similar at sleepaway camp where he made a system connected to his top bunk to pick up dropped items below.

“Sorry, kiddo. I really do like the doghouse.”

“OK,” he said, still monotoned.

“I’m proud of all your clever stuff,” I continued, gesturing at the new pulley.

The kid shrugged. And I realized, this was more than just being immunized by my complaints. This was part of a pattern occurring in other instances. I would go to his orchestra concerts and praise his trombone work, only to get a mumbled “Thanks.” I would see his report card and remark on the improvement in math, followed by his “I should do better” response.

What I came to realize was that my son honestly did not know how to take a compliment. Moreover, neither did my two elder sons or, for that matter, most of the high-school students I taught.

While I haven’t delved too deeply into the psychological research that explains this phenomenon with today’s kids, I do have thoughts on why I am making a goal out of giving my sons a different kind of gift this holiday season. I want to teach them how to take a compliment.

Part one is something I refer to a lot regarding my parenting habits. That is, I have to be better about reducing my criticisms and targeting my constructive advice so that, when I do give a compliment, it is not drowned out by negativity.

Part two is giving a proper compliment. In a generation of parents who have given out more than our share of participation trophies and praise for doing basic human things like pooping and making a rudimentary finger-painting, I need to focus my positive feedback on achievements that require serious effort. This includes taking risks by trying difficult tasks, standing up for friends when others won’t, and hitting a tough high note on a really difficult instrument like a trombone. The key is specificity, citing a particular action, and not just saying, “You’re great!” Kids trust a compliment and actually know how to build off of it when they know exactly where they have gone right.

Part three is trickier and that involves coaching my kids to receive praise with grace and appreciation that someone is taking the time to notice them. We all crave validation, but if we don’t make eye contact with our complimenter and drink it in when it’s served to us, especially since it gets more rare as we get older, then we will self-inflict more ego suffering than we should.

Although I still plan to give my boys a couple of material gifts I hope they’ll like, my true hope is that I can help them accept the gift of a compliment and, most of all, teach them how to savor praise as a validation for the hard-working, unique people they are. If I can do this just a little, I can live with all the messiness my boys can wreak upon my living room.

© 2018 Gregory Keer. All rights reserved.

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