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2003-02-02 - 11:13 p.m.

"I think shy is boring

I think depressed is too

I think pretty is nice

But I'd rather see something new“ Ani DiFranco

Yesterday I was drawing with some friends and their child, a girl of about six. As we were drawing one of my friends, not the mother of the girl, continually heaped praise on her for her drawings. As far as I could tell the girl wasn't responsive to the praise at all; she didn't say anything much.

Then I started telling the story of the chimpanzees who were given paints and brushes to play with, and how the pictures changed when they started getting rewards for them. I think the effusive praise had annoyed me somehow (was I jealous?) and I was at least unconsciously trying to make the point that the praise affected the drawings. I wasn't thinking about it explicitly, actually. But another of the adults there took the point in a different way and said, well, that's what makes my (that is to say, his) music so good, because I don't get any money for it. Which led to a conversation about vanity and humility, which isn't related to this.

But later when I realised that I'd been trying to make a point about the praise, it bothered me. Shouldn't a parent praise their children's drawings? Isn't the automatic response of saying, that's good, that's nice, that's interesting the right one?

I wonder is that where the "that's interesting" thing comes from? I've often noticed that when someone has absolutely nothing to say about something, no response, no meaningful relation at all, they'll say "that's interesting", not sarcastically at all, but you can tell it means exactly the opposite. But I wonder, is the way that a bored parent looks at the hundredth identical scribbling and says "that's interesting" the origin of this quirk?

I guess this comes back to Buber and the whole question of attentiveness and responsibility. Because of course I don't think that parents should somehow be expected to develop such powers of attention and focus and concentration that they can deeply engage with every sheet of paper that their child has spent five minutes scribbling on. It's a totally unrealistic burden to place on them. And obviously they shouldn't say "don't bother me with that rubbish" if they're bored with looking at the drawings. But there was something... I hesitate to say it but I was offended by this neverending stream of insincere praise. "Oh that's so lovely, well done, that's beautiful..." you'd never do something like that to an adult, they'd see the insincerity of it at once and want to know what you were after in exchange. I guess maybe part of it was jealousy or something like it on my part, buried resentment, my own issues. But maybe it was the fact that, she was using this stream of praise to disguise the fact that she wasn't paying any real attention to the girl or her pictures at all. Doing the "right thing". And therefore not required to do anything. Being perfectly responsible and thereby not needing to respond at all.

But am I just using these ideas to justify my own irritation? I'm wary because it's so easy to turn these things into a standard (war-flag) which I can then use to put other people down. But... my own irritation is a genuine response, it can teach me something. I don't have to disregard it just because it's unpleasant.

"If a child asked for bread, would you give it a stone?"

See, I am feeling self-righteous about this, but that's the thing, that's the... praise here is acting as a substitute for attention, but it's a sly, surreptitious form of inattention. Of course the child wants to have their drawing noticed, its meaningfulness apprehended. But this bland, tepid praise which just goes on and on... looks like attention, looks like food but leaves you feeling still hungry, maybe feeling guilty for being so needy... am I taking this too far?

"Don't speak unless you can improve the silence".

Leave the poor girl alone and just let her draw! See, that's it, too. The praise is actually not a giving but a demanding. Respond to my praise! Give me something back! Be happy, be glad that I'm being so nice to you!

Am I being too nasty about this? Shouldn't I have some pity for the woman who was doing the praising, probably just anxious to be good, to do the right thing... Just like me with that question. Give me permission to be nasty...

The funny thing was that I was actually full of admiration for the young girl's pictures. I could see in them something of the "unintegration" that's so vital... my own drawing was... I started with something representative and then tried to let go, ended up veering between integration and disintegration, marvelling at how easily the six-year-old just drew... too shy to say anything about it.


"If I

Wasn't shy" - They Might Be Giants

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