Tuesday, April 22, 2014


     Compliments go a long way, they really do. I've been married sixteen years, but they feel more like five. It amazes me when I look through the kids' photo albums how much they've grown in just a few short years, and how much Deanne and I have aged blossomed.
     Obviously what made the years go by so fast were happy, healthy relationships. The ol' saying about time going by fast when you're have fun is true. Conversely, when life is miserable, time slows to a crawl.
     At the risk of sounding self-complimentary, a large reason for our marital felicity can be attributed to my liberal bestowing of compliments upon Deanne. She, in turn, has praised me now and then, conservative lest I get too prideful.
     Deanne grew up in an environment where compliments were seldom shared. When she first met my parents, and I asked her what she thought, she said she thought she had gone to Heaven, seeing them so loving with each other.
     This took me aback: that was the way they always acted. They hadn't been any more loving than usual. It was then that I realized that their usual way of interrelating was Deanne's family's rare exception or fairy-tale fantasy.
     My mom taught me to compliment by forcing me to praise my sister Joan's cooking. She'd make something awful and I'd mumble, “Tastes great, Joan,” and she'd say with bright cheer, “Thanks, Tim!” as if she couldn't tell I hadn't meant it.
     It reminded me of the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Mary asks Mr. Grant his opinion about her true story essay that described her uncle that dressed up as Santa all year round. Mr. Grant opined, “It's all boring,” but explained that he respects her too much to give her false praise, and to demonstrate his point, he called in nincompoop incompetent Ted Baxter and told him he's doing a great job, to which the newscaster left beside himself with glee. When asked if that's what she wants, Mary said, “God, yes,” to which Mr. Grant patronized her with sarcastic, overblown puffery. Mary thought a moment then choosing to believe the happy lie, she said, “Why, thank you Mr. Grant.”
     Joan's cooking improved over time to the point that I grudgingly had to admit to myself that her cooking really was good (especially the canned cherries with ham).
     Mom always insisted that we compliment the cook no matter what-because it's such a downer to hear negativity after all the hard work and worry. It's a lesson that's stuck. Every meal Deanne has ever served me—thousands by now—I've thanked and praised her for, usually referring to the “wonderful meal”—even before I've tasted it. And after tasting it, I tell her something specific about why it's so delicious. And it's never been hypocritical or patronizing (as Mr. Grant implies), but sincere and true expressions of gratitude and appreciation.
     Compliments should be used sparingly with children, however. The new thinking (which makes sense to me for small things at least) is that we should praise the effort, not the outcome or the person, because kids know when they do well and that should be reward enough, too much praise can be like candy (can't get enough), and for kids who feel unworthy, it can even create discomfort so that they'll feel compelled to act or mess up to retest the boundaries and gain reassurance that everything's fine as usual with Mom and Dad critical as ever. (Kids have so much to learn by the time they reach adulthood that it's inevitable that they be corrected and corrected often, which often enough is in the form of criticism or discipline. On the surface it can sound harsh and cruel, but it really isn't. To the contrary, to correct and direct is to love, care, and nurture. The unloved child, by contrast, may be ignored and/or fatuously praised. And kids know this difference intuitively.)
     The other night Braden showed us his craft project—a hand-carved koa pendant cross. I told him I loved it for its beauty and design, and being a sometimes hobby craftsman, I asked him how he'd done it. I could tell he was pleased with Deanne's and my compliments, however, the next morning when I looked for a clean breakfast plate, I discovered that all the large dishes were filthy. He had been doing a good job of washing the dinner dishes recently and I soon made the connection, since it wasn't the first time it happened, that the inverse power of praise had been at work whereby praise becomes counterproductive.
     My mom—at the same time the most loving yet critical parent imaginable—once sat me down and for the first time ever, praised me profusely, telling me I should give myself more credit and be proud, and that she saw how hard I tried to do the right thing all the time—a real Joy Luck Club moment that taught me how to receive praise without feeling compelled to act up to regain equilibrium.
     The night following the messy dishes I said as we sat to say grace before dinner that we all needed practice giving and receiving praise. Everyone, each in turn, will compliment everyone else, I said, and each complimented person must say thank you. I demonstrated first, followed by Deanne and the others. It went well—lots of smiles, laughs, and joy in just a few moments.
     I never stop praising Deanne's beauty, too. It's easy—she really is beautiful. And I compliment her on things I find attractive about her. Almost as much as saying, “I love you,” telling her, “You're so sexy,” or “You're the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world,” or “You're the best!”—corny though they may sound—really do go a long way. And I'm often the prime recipient of her gratitude and good will.
     More recently, Branden shared his second craft project—a heart-shaped koa pendant. I again praised his work and this time told him of his tendency to act up after being praised due to his feeling unworthy and that he needed to receive such praise from family into his heart. I also said, “When classmates or others praise you, you he may need to guard your heart—they may just want something from you, but when we praise you, it's okay to feel good about it. Last time we complimented you on your cross pendant, the next morning, all the dishes were filthy. This time, I expect the dishes to be clean, alright?” He smiled and said, “Yes, Dad.”
     The next morning, the dishes were sparkling clean, praise God.

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