My children have an educational computer game, let’s call it “Letter Jungle” (not its real name) that they will play on occasion. It’s just your typical game, filled with activities whose purpose is to teach them letters, sounds, the alphabet, and so on. My daughter in particular is a fan of the game. But every time either of them signs on to play, a pandering female voice says, “Welcome back to Letter Jungle! I’m glad you are here to help! You are a hero!”
This, along with the continuous, over-the-top encouragement that the game provides every time my child has a minor accomplishment, really bugs me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of my children. As much as I enjoy complaining about them, I think they are great, really. But this disingenuous praise that the game doles out to my children when they accomplish the most minor task is not doing them (or me!) any favours.
And it’s not just this game that is guilty of this. I have also noticed it in my kids’ favourite TV shows, specifically the “interactive” ones. They will tell my children that they are “brilliant” and “amazing,” and they will say, “well done, super you!” whenever they accomplish some simple and obvious task, such as identifying the blue shape that is pulsating in the corner as a “triangle.” You may be aware of some of the shows I am referring to. You may even appreciate them, because, indeed, they have many other good qualities. But I really wish they would stop laying the praise on so thick.
Why does all this flattery get under my skin? Well, let me lay it out for you.
First: it feels insincere. Because it is. The computer games or TV shows, they don’t know my children, and are thus not qualified to make determinations about them. For some kids, maybe identifying a triangle would be an accomplishment deserving of praise, but some kids (like mine) are way past that, and others are not even close. Some kids staring at the screen can barely talk, after all, and some of them could be identifying whether the triangle is isosceles or equilateral.
I want my children to learn sincerity, so that when they have conversations with other people they will, in turn, be sincere and genuine. How can my child trust a computer game that tells her that she is a “hero!” simply because she identified a few letters correctly in the game, or found that obvious blue triangle in the corner? Also, should praises about who they are as people (amazing, wonderful, fabulous) be doled out depending on their accomplishments, such as the accomplishment of identifying a few letter sounds in a computer game? No, not at all. They were already those things, by virtue of who they are.
It’s insincere, computer game. Children are not idiots: they know that they are not really superheroes or geniuses simply because they can identify letter sounds correctly. And so now my child may not trust any praise from you, even if it is justified.
Second: it is insecure. I know shows want viewers and games want players, but lavishing outrageous compliments on kids to get them to like you really seems to lack confidence.
I have an adorable nephew who just turned one, and if I am going to see him I will often wear an interesting necklace so that he will be happy to let his adoring auntie hold him and kiss his head while he stares intently at the magical wonder around my neck, twirling it around between his chubby fingers. I am not beyond that with a one-year-old, but this is because I took the time to figure out that one-year-olds like shiny things, and my intentions are pure—I want to kiss that head and hold that sweet little boy before he grows up too fast.
And the same principle applies here—if you want to make a game or a show that my kid will want to watch and interact with, how about simply figuring out what kids today love and are interested in, and then make a quality product that kids will love and be drawn to by virtue of the fact that it is a great game or show? Kids, like adults, have standards and preferences. Why not let them learn what they are worth to you in that way, instead of by lavishing them with empty praise?
And third: it contributes to creating entitled children with an insatiable appetite for praise. We have seen this conundrum in our American Idol generation, in those who went in front of Simon Cowell thinking that they were amazing singers and, after they were told that they were not, came to the conclusion that he was the one who had no idea what he was talking about. He was rude to excess, granted, but also, many of them were not good singers. If my children develop the expectation that they will be branded as wonderful, incredible, and heroic when they identify a triangle, they are being set up for a huge amount of disappointment in their lives.
Also, and this hearkens back to the sincerity issue, this will make it much more difficult for them to tell the difference when someone wants to praise them for a job well done, or does think that they’re amazing. Hearing that you’re amazing every five minutes from someone who doesn’t know you probably makes it less special, and less believable, don’t you think? When I tell them that the picture they drew is really interesting, or that I think that they are being really kind, or that I appreciate that they helped with setting the table, will I need to don a cheerleading outfit and pompoms to sing their praises if I want them to believe me? I love them very much, but if they do a chore that they are responsible to do anyway, I think a simple “thank you!” should suffice. And if they do a beautiful, intricate picture or get 100% on their spelling test and I get excited and tell them that they did a great job and that I think they are amazing, I want that to come across as the big deal I think it is.
And so, this is my appeal to the show makers, the game creators. I implore you: if you are feeling insecure about getting a good audience, just make your show better, and help me keep my kids realistic in their expectations of themselves and others. And, for the love of them, teach them the value of being sincere, and teach them that they can expect to earn an appropriate amount of praise for their accomplishments, big or small, and that’s it. Because this is what will make them the people you and I will want to live in the world with. And it might even help them think twice before trying out for American Idol, too.