Posted tagged ‘firefly poem’

The Burden of Childhood Specialness – Firefly

September 20, 2009

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.