Monday, December 29, 2008

Encouragement vs. Realism

This blog was inspired by my best friend Mart, who started blogging before I did. He mostly blogs about his two daughters and he sounds so proud of them. Both on his blog and in person, he tends to gush about all the things that his two girls do. The older one, Rose, plays the piano and now the younger one, Autumn, is learning music as well. Autumn seems particularly vivacious and creative.

I have a fifteen-year-old daughter named Jessica. I'd like to brag about her like Mart brags about his girls but, when I see her various endeavours, I see only room for improvement. Most distressingly, the things that she appears to enjoy doing the most are things for which she has no particular talent.

Like many other teenagers, she likes Japanese manga and anime, and she's forever drawing anime pictures. Unfortunately, her pictures aren't all that impressive. Body joints are angular and disproportionate (even for anime). Limbs are straight and shapeless. Poses are awkward and unnatural. So I got her a book on drawing manga, thinking that its pointers regarding technique might help, but I've seen only marginal improvement in her work at best. I suspect that part of the problem is that, rather than reading the book and developing her technique step by step, she continues to draw as her whims dictate and the book sits largely unread and ignored. She doesn't seem to have the self-discipline to learn the rudimentary skills. She wants to simply start drawing full-fledged scenes.

She's also tried her hand at music, only guitar rather than piano. She started with an acoustic guitar borrowed from a cousin and was later given a hand-me-down electric guitar and a mini-amp from another cousin. She tried Internet self-study and sounded terrible, so my wife and I signed her up for guitar lessons at a local community centre for several weeks. Again, the lessons haven't really helped much. Now, I don't expect mastery after only a few weeks, but some sort of improvement would be gratifying. Instead, she just strums away tunelessly, evening after evening. Again, instead of practicing the skills learned during her weekly lessons, she attempts to play Avril Lavigne songs. She seems to want to go straight to her destination, skipping the tedium of the journey. Incidentally, like many young girls, she also harbors dreams of becoming a singing star like Avril Lavigne but, again, her voice and her singing talent are mediocre at best. She couldn't carry a tune if she had a wheelbarrow.

Perhaps I adopted my critical attitude from my parents. My parents were generous with their criticisms but sparing with their praise during my youth (he said, settling back into his virtual psychiatrist's couch). When I did well, little was usually said. My parents considered the absence of criticism as being equivalent to a compliment. On the other hand, I was frequently reminded of my failings and shortcomings. "You don't need to be told when you've done well," my mother used to admonish me. "You should know when you've done well. You only need to be corrected when you haven't met expectations".

But this is not about me, it's about Jessica; or, rather, parenting in general. The question that preoccupies me is this; how do we, as parents, walk that fine line between being supportive and being realistic? When Jessica shows me a finished drawing and asks my opinion, I point out any flaws and weaknesses that I see. Would I be doing her any favors if I were to smile and say "That's very nice, dear" in the interest of stroking her ego and let her believe that her work needs no improvement?

At one time, she entertained the idea of becoming an actress. I told her that for every Julia Roberts, there are thousands of attractive, talented young ladies who nobody has ever heard of. I explained that the entertainment business can be a shallow, superficial one that rewards style over substance. Often, it's not about how talented you are or are not so much as the connections you have and the favors you've done for those in a position of influence. It's not how good you are, it's how marketable you are. Even those who reach the limelight often can't cope with its glare. Those who achieve significant fame lose all privacy and are hounded constantly by press, paparazzi and their fans. Would it be kinder of me to encourage her dreams without warning her of the pitfalls?

When I was young, I wanted to learn to fly. I've always loved airplanes and anything having to do with flying. When I told this to my parents, they immediately listed all of the reasons why it wasn't a good idea. Learning to fly is expensive and time-consuming. I'd need to have perfect eyesight. The moment that began to fail, my career could be in jeopardy. If I were to become a commercial transport pilot, I'd never be home. I'd constantly be traveling to some far-off place, and, being a natural homebody, I'd likely be miserable. When I suggested that I might consider joining the air cadets, I was told that most who follow that path end up polishing the aircraft if they're lucky. Very few actually get to fly them. And let's not forget how dangerous flying can be.

So today, I work in an office, with airplane calendars and models adorning my cubicle, and in my spare time I fly simulators on my PC. Once in a while I'll go soaring at a local gliding club, or maybe take an introductory flight in a single-engine Cessna at the regional airport. They didn't kill the dream, but they certainly maimed it. I don't want to do that to my daughter.

Jessica does have a lot of good qualities, and I've seen the glimmer of talent in a couple of areas. She has talked about becoming a kindergarten or primary school teacher, and I think she would excel in this. She has a genuine fondness for small children, and she's very good with them. This year, she answered the door and handed out the treats on Hallowe'en, and I was genuinely impressed by what I saw and heard. She was always friendly and cheerful with the children, greeting those who she knew and recognized by name. When a large crowd showed up all at once, she had them line up in an orderly fashion and then served them one by one. She sounded like a teacher even just handing out treats.

And there's one other talent that I'm proud to say she seems to have inherited from me. She has a talent for creative writing. She spends a fair bit of time writing poems and short stories. I've read her work and I've been genuinely impressed by some of it, and have told her so. Again, I see a real glimmer of promise there, and I'm happy to encourage her to continue developing this talent, even as I chide her about "getting a vocabulary". At the same time, I point out that the number of people who have earned a living solely from writing is small indeed, and even those did not achieve their fame early or overnight. But there's that negativity again.

As parents, we want to encourage our children to follow their dreams and to realize their fullest potential, but we also want to protect them from the dangers and pitfalls that exist. Encouragement and realism sometimes seem at odds with each other.

1 comment:

Candy said...

I encourage my teenagers in everything they are interested in and find something positive to say to them no matter what. It's amazing how they get better and better at whatever they pursue because they believe they can.

When it comes to our children, encouragement wins over realism anyday in my books.