Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law repeatedly tells my 4-year-old daughter she is superior to other children. Yes, she uses that word, says it with a straight face and takes care to explain what it means.
What’s up with that? My offspring is indeed very bright, but I don’t see what is gained by telling her she’s awesome and her peers are not. Grandma is great in all other respects, so I’ve put up with this so far. My husband thinks it’s no big deal and that I should chill. Should I?
Is Grandma Going Overboard?
I think your husband is wrong, but if he won’t cooperate, then your options are pretty limited.
I suggest you, then husband, then mother-in-law read chapters 1 and 5 of NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Better to go wild and read the whole thing, but presumably Grandma at least will be hostile or just closed to some of its ideas, and in that case keeping the assignment short will improve the chances that she’ll get the message.
That message being, for those uninterested in a reading assignment: When kids hear repeatedly that they’re wonderful, it actually inhibits their willingness to try hard and risk failure; they become invested in preserving everyone’s image of them as smart or superior. Instead of building up their self-esteem, such praise has the inverse effect of eroding it.
The research leading to this conclusion also supports giving praise for hard work, which encourages a child to invest in that instead. Bonus, you get to become the next set of parents routinely using the word “grit” even when not eating shellfish.
Carol Dweck’s Mindset is the primary resource here, but that’s getting a bit ahead of myself. After you and your husband read Nurture Shock, discuss the possibility that it is, in fact, a deal of reasonable size and a battle worth choosing. Good luck.
Re: Superior Kids: Hey, my mom did the same thing! When my kids were literally less than 6 months old! Since it was my mom and not my mother-in-law, I just tackled it myself. “I dunno, Mom. Their hand-eye coordination is terrible; we have had zero luck getting them to clean up after themselves; they show no indication of retaining the multivariable calc that Husband is trying to teach them. They can’t even talk. Frankly, so far, they’re a big disappointment.”
She knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but after three or four of those types of responses, she stopped making the remarks. If she had continued, I’d have stopped treating it like the joke that it halfway was.
Humor 1, Battle 0, thanks.
Dear Carolyn: I have a baby on the way. As someone who has been mostly uninterested in babies, it was always kind of annoying when this conversation topic took over book groups, dinner parties, etc. Now that I’m showing, I’m often the source of these conversations. I feel rude trying to redirect, so mostly I just answer the questions, or try to steer topics back to other people. Is there anything else I can do without seeming rude?
Redirection is actually the polite way to indicate you don’t want to discuss something. Feel free to give a breezy answer and change the subject.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.