“It’s all right, Mum,” said Subjudice, as I dropped her off at school. “You don’t have to try so hard: I know about positive affirmation – we do it in citizenship class.”
I had been mindlessly repeating “well done you!” and “way to go!” as she told me some boring story about how she wasn’t going to be friends with Felicia anymore, because Felicia was saying that anybody who didn’t like Sam ’n’ Mark couldn’t be her friend, and I was preparing to trot out my ‘It’s okay to be different, darling’ speech when she cut the legs out from under me.
I stared at my daughter and thought of the years I’d spent saying “good girl” and “aren’t you clever?” if she so much as steered a spoon within five inches of her head, and wondered whether my life had been entirely in vain. Then I thought that at least she’d turned out confident enough to do without all that guff now, and so dropped her off with quite a light heart, considering that she’d trashed my entire parenting strategy for the last 13 years (which is: praise them like you’ve got benign Tourette’s Syndrome and only resort to chocolate if you see blood).
That evening I told the Lawyer that our little girl was all grown up now, and the thing he homed in on was that I handed out praise for free.
“You don’t get that at work, you know,” he said. “Makes them soft. Bad for them.” As if all those lawyers were so many footsoldiers who needed a jab in the back from a bayonet before they’d go over the top, pick up the phone or actually finish that report you asked them for. (Although, actually, some of them are just like that.)
“But wouldn’t it be nicer if you did get that?” I asked. “I mean, when was the last time someone said, ‘Well done. I really liked the way you did that presentation. And weren’t you good to step in at the last moment because Andrew forgot to prepare anything? Clever boy.’”
He looked at me as if I’d gone slightly mad, but in the morning I could see he’d been pondering on my words, because he said “Oh that’s great” when Deminimus chuntered on about getting his homework done in time to play for three hours solid on his PlayStation 2 last night. Instead of the usual clash of wills on whether he should have PlayStation at all during the week, they were soon deep in a discussion about gaming levels, and when Deminimus left for school he whispered to me: “Dad’s really cool, isn’t he?”
The Lawyer tried it out at work and within a couple of days I had his secretary on the phone asking if he was on medication at last, because he seemed so much more cheery, and was it Prozac? And once we’d gotten past that, she mentioned that he’d bought chocolate eclairs for all the juniors in the department “just for being themselves”, which was a change, as he mostly wishes they were other people altogether, and as a result at least one of them had decided not to jump ship to the IT house of fun department, where they flick ties at each other all day long.
All was going swimmingly until he went into automatic mode during a partners’ meeting and came out with “Well done; fantastic; good on you” when the department head informed them he was about to lose his licence for drink driving.
Now he’s back to grudging praise – he feels it’s safer.