The Burden of Childhood Specialness – Firefly

I really am almost done with writing about The New York Times September 14, 2009 article by Alfie Kohn, “Mind:…” about the hazards of parental praise and punishment.   (You may be sick of it too.)

However, one fellow mother and blogger recently commented on the issue of praise as discussed in the article and my posts.  She found it hard to think of praise for children as problematic.  (Sorry, I’m oversimplifying her comment.)   She worried that not praising children might cause them to feel bad, particularly in the context of praise given to others.

I didn’t mean to condemn all praise for children!  But I do think parental praise can become problematic when it conditions a child into a reliance upon a sense of specialness.

Yes, of course, every child is special.  (Unique, God’s creation, like a snowflake, etc.)

The specialness I am talking about is not a child’s uniqueness so much as his or her “bestness,” “gold-star-ness,” “very very good-girlness or boyness.”

A security blanket of parental praise, especially combined with precocity, can be a potent combination for a child.  While the parent, in praising, may mean simply to acknowledge the child, and perhaps, excite and exhort him or her into making continued efforts (and, unwittingly to continue being a great reflection of the parent), the child may confuse this specialness as a condition for parental affection, and even for his or her own validity.

As the precocious child grows up, the child’s sense of specialness can shift from glow to burden.  The world has many many many special people.   (Thankfully!)    Someone who is used to the repeated confirmation of their sense of specialness by well-meaning, compliant, eager parents may have a hard time achieving plain old contentment (i.e. sufficiency) as they move into a heap whose top can hardly be seen.  The failure to feel special may feel like failure itself.    (My fellow blogger, kindly commenting, suggested self-awareness could help with this;  but feelings are feelings; they are not always mitigated by rational thinking.)

Anyway!  I realized today that I had a poem about this very issue:


As a child, I was told that I was a star,
whose brilliance would light up the world like a jar
filled with fireflies.  In the place I grew up,
we’d crouch in dark grass, catching them in the cup
of a hand that they quickly transformed into heart,
a roseate, luminescent, star part.
From palm, we would pour them into our glass,
so we could catch more, faster than fast.

Then, everything changed. Maybe it was the time
when the man I had loved would no longer be mine,
or when all the freedom I’d anticipated
could no longer be fully emancipated.
Jobs couldn’t be quit, hours must be put in,
the soiled re-washed, the fanciful shut in.
My erstwhile fresh talent now seemed like old rot,
I had to be happy with what I had got.

Now, when I think back to that life as a star,
I see less of the firefly, more of the jar,
the air holes on top we made with a pick
used to pry nuts from shells, a sharp metal stick.
It tore holes that were cutting, jagged beneath,
and could easily pierce an insect’s bright sheath.
I think of those holes, the sharp underside
that ceilinged that glow, that unreasoning pride.

(All rights reserved.  From Going on Somewhere, by Karin Gustafson – available on Amazon.)

PS – I am relinking this post to Victoria C. Slotto’s blog liv2write2day, to answer her prompt about singing one’s self.

PPS – for a much more lighthearted view of young adulthood check out my comic teen novel, NOSE DIVE.

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22 Comments on “The Burden of Childhood Specialness – Firefly”

  1. Mwa Says:

    I think you may have misunderstood me. I do understand the problem with praise. I am, in fact, myself a grown up firefly with problems because I’m not seen as all that special any more. I’m just wondering if a lack of praise could not also create problems. Just thinking it through.

    • manicddaily Says:

      Dear Mwa, I’m so sorry–I didn’t mean to misstate your comment, which was, of course, more thoughtful than the way I stated it. (I tried to apologize in advance for oversimplifying and I apologize again here.) It just set me thinking and I was using it as a starting off point. I really didn’t mean to mischaracterize it. You are probably right re a lack of praise! I guess thoughtfulness is key; specificity. I really do recommend the Ginott books and followers. I’m lucky that my kids are quite large (not physically, I mean, grown up) so whatever damage I’ve done is probably already largely done!

    • manicddaily Says:

      PS – To Mwa–re praise–I think specificity rather than blanket praise is really a key. Children, like all of us, crave specific attention and acknowledgement. So a remark like –” that report on (I don’t know) Ponce De Leon was really fascinating; it really made me realize what how wild Florida must have seemed”–rather than “you are such a good writer.” Or, “your cleaning up the table like that makes me feel so terrific!” I think this kind of praise avoids some of the specialness issues. But I’m not sure it’s that easy to carry out.

  2. […] a poem written in 8 line stanzas of four rhyming couplets, check her post: The Burden of Specialness – Firely. She’s a new blogger. She’s a good poet. And did I mention she writes for children? A […]

  3. zongrik Says:

    so then what’s better, parents who tell you how wonderful you are and are not realistic about it, or parents who put you down and tell you to be modest all the time, when in fact, you do have some talen and capability?

    • manicddaily Says:

      Good question. I think the idea is that it’s great for parents perhaps to respond to what you actually do or make and not to have global praise or labels. I certainly don’t think parents should put kids down. But I think the danger is in the labeling.

      Example–and really I’m just guessing here–but if a child does a painting, for example–“wow that horse looks really fast!” Or “Hey, I feel like I could almost smell that flower.” Or even “That painting is some colorful and bright and cool.” But if there’s a lot of “wow you are a great painter,” I think it can eventually make it kind of hard. I don’t know. It’s a difficult question. But I didn’t mean to imply that the answer was to put children down. I think the danger, however, is that children who are always getting global praise can feel very empty if they are not getting that praise, or when put in a tougher situation. They can get awfully dependent on always pleasing.

  4. how cool to be like a star,

    very fun childhood stories,

  5. marousia Says:

    Love the repetition of words in this – so subtle 🙂 It is a well-crafted poem that speaks volumes

  6. I was also praised highly as a child – by my mother for being the ‘clever one’, by teachers for being the perfect student, for my spelling ability and my writing. My mother also heaped praise upon me for my hair colour – growing up with ginger hair was difficult for me and I experienced a lot of bullying.

    In hindsight, it did cause problems as I grew older, once I realised I wasn’t special and unique. I almost felt lied to.

    I don’t know how I feel about the issue of praise. I suppose it’s highly individual.

    • manicddaily Says:

      I’m sure you are very special and unique! And I think it is a highly individual issue. I think the problem comes when people become terribly dependent upon a certain kind of acknowledgement and praise, which can be very hard to come by in the adult world!

    • viv blake Says:

      Agreed. Everyone needs to be special to someone. I used to resent my parents’ lack of interest in my doings – they weren’t there when I won the medal at the London music festival – because I had an older sister who was a paragon.

  7. tigerbrite Says:

    It’s taken 50 years to realise self worth and confidence. But I see this as my own fault for believing I was unworthy because I was made out the Dunce and Ugly Duckling. I should have remembered the Ugly Duckling turns into the Swan !

  8. Karin, sorry I’m so late in commenting on this but I had an episode of vertigo yesterday…what a trip!

    This post is so full of wisdom. I relate a lot to that feeling of being treated as “special” and then having to face the raw reality of life. I think, as with all things, balance is the answer. Yes, a child should be respected and cherished, encouraged. But also allowed to learn strength, perserverance and survival skills. Life is not easy and kids don’t come with an instruction manual.

  9. […] full poem can be found here, and is in my book, Going on Somewhere, by Karin Gustafson, illustrated by the incomparable Diana […]

  10. Jamie Dedes Says:

    Wow! Talk about a hot topic, K. So very well done. Bravo! Point clearly and unforgettably made.

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