In Her Words
The Perils of Too Much Praise
What it’s like to grow up being called a genius
Somewhere, on an old transcript in my closet, rest the immortal words of my seventh-grade English teacher. “Your daughter, I believe, is one of the most talented students I’ve ever met,” she wrote. “Her abilities are tantamount to genius.” At the time, I had no idea how those words were going to haunt my future.
From a very early age, it was clear that I had some unusual abilities. I remember sitting on the floor of my room drawing in a giant sketchbook or at my desk, composing poems and stories. My mind was a never-ending repository of creative ideas, something my parents and teachers were all too eager to tap into.
As I got older, and my interests turned to journalism, all of my college professors thought I’d be the next Diane Sawyer. With my diploma in hand, and a string of awards and honors on my resume, I felt fairly confident that I would take the journalism world by storm.
What I was soon to discover as I headed to Washington, D.C., one of the biggest journalism centers in the country, is there were thousands of “geniuses” with fancy degrees competing for the same entry-level jobs that I wanted. Unfortunately, a recession had come along the same time I was trying to land my first real job, and I was forced to take whatever I could get.
From a practical standpoint, I knew what I was up against. But that small, rebellious voice from my childhood was always in the background, wondering why no one had “discovered” me yet. As I struggled to make a living in a competitive town, my self-esteem plummeted each time I’d hear of someone my own age – or even younger – scoring a job at the Washington Post or New York Times.
Today, I have what I would say is a respectable career with a well-known trade publisher. I have a lovely home, a husband and a beautiful son, so there’s a lot to be thankful for. Yet in my 18 years as a journalist, I have never won a single award. And that novel my teachers thought I’d write has yet to be written.
The voice from that disillusioned child, surrounded by mountains of illustrations and unpublished poems, still exists inside of me, wondering why I let her dreams slip away.
I watch as my parents praise my toddler’s every little milestone, how they rave that he’ll be the next Supreme Court Justice every time he says a new word or stacks his wooden blocks. I know their words are well meaning; that they’re being said with love and with great pride.
And I want to tell them to stop, immediately.
It’s not that I don’t want to encourage my son, or to deprive him of any type of praise. I just think it’s dangerous to put a label on a child that’s so grandiose it almost certainly sets him up for disappointment.
In my view, telling my son that he “did a good job” on his algebra homework is far healthier than dubbing him as a math prodigy – or the next president, for that matter.
By giving him small steps to climb, I’m hoping he’ll build the confidence to tackle the bigger steps as he progresses through life, into that scary place we call the real world.
Jennifer Lubell is a healthcare reporter in Washington, D.C., and fearless manic mom to Alex, who just turned 2.