Damned with fond praise

by Deanna Vineall

Are we creating mediocrity? There’s no arguing that there’s a history – in the Western world – of harsh criticism. Current – new age-wisdom declares this destructive/unproductive/stifling.

Is it possible though, that we have swung too much in the opposite direction?  You got thirty percent in your exam – well done, here’s a shiny pass certificate!

The over-riding concern for self esteem to be maintained may be costing us competence. It’s a fine line and it would be fine indeed if we could find it.

I’m all for encouraging your children, praising their special talents – all children have a gift of some kind – and ensuring they grow up confident of their capabilities. I’d just like to see them grow up confident of their incapabilities too. My father once cheerfully said to my mother, in the presence of all three children, “Do you know, not one of them can hit a note?”

Was I destroyed by this absolute truth? No, and what’s more I didn’t do anything silly like entering Idols. It amazes me how Simon Cowell and his critical counterparts are drawn as the villains for telling people they can’t sing. In a singing competition. By the time the softies of the group – yes, I’m looking at you, Unathi Msengana, SA Idols – have finished saying no, it’s quite possible for the wooden spoons to wander out of the audition believing they still have a future in singing.

Having interviewed, employed and managed more millennial babies than I care to recall over the last 10 years, I never cease to be amazed/amused by the expectations with which they’ve been allowed to grow up. Favourites would be:

The 22 year old who didn’t manage to finish her tourism diploma, wants a job with a financial corporate, and when asked where she hopes to be, career-wise, in five years time, says, seriously,
“I think I would be a director, possibly CEO.”

The 20-something call centre agent who marches into the MD’s office and declares himself ready for promotion to team leader…based on his average of zero sales per day.

And Julius Malema, just a small boy at 30, who never dreamed that the nasty old NEC would hold him accountable for bringing international disrepute aknocking.

Someone told them all they were marvellous, exceptional and untouchable. What a terrible shock to find out the world doesn’t concur. Worse still, the world doesn’t even care. If you’re incapable of recognising your incapabilities, the world turns out to be not so much your oyster, as your mussel: it’s tough, chewy and could make you sick.

What a loss too, especially to the world of writing, when criticism needs to be veiled in marshmallow. If Dorothy Parker were born now, what would she say? Certainly not: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

And Mark Twain would never say:  “I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Criticism is only information, I was told once. It’s true. Do we really want to raise a world of  children who believe they are perfect in every way? One of the best Dr Phil-ism’s I’ve heard is you’re not raising a child, you’re raising an adult.

In the grown up world, when mom and dad are faraway, junior is left all alone with his/her expectations. Be careful what they are. You probably don’t want people like me and Simon adjusting them.


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