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Millennials and Praise: Why?

FERGUSON: I’m going to tell you what will happen to me and my classmates at the end of this show–when it’s over, after the host says “thanks for listening.” After the mics are turned off, we gather and talk about this show, the one happening right now–what went well, and what didn’t. We go through each piece one by one. It takes a long time, and it can be brutal. But to me, the criticism isn’t the worst part. The worst part is the praise.

They–and I don’t even really know who they are, but it seems like everyone from psychologists to trend pieces in the Style section of the New York Times–they say that my generation, millennials, thrive on praise. I hate that word, a catch-all, as if one made-up term can broach the differences and idiosyncrasies of so many people just because they fall within a certain age range. But fine. We’ve been told too many times that we were special, given too many trophies as kids, like the ones from my childhood soccer leagues. I don’t know which games we won and which ones we lost. Everyone got a participant trophy. Everyone won. Those trophies still decorate my bedroom back home. They’re still shiny, if a bit ridiculous to look at–a bulbous soccer ball soaring out on a trail of shooting stars. But they’re really just cheap plastic.

That’s not what I wanted then, and it’s not what I want now in graduate school. I’m a beginner, and so much of what I make now is bad. Some good ideas…but not quite there yet. I cringe thinking about how all of it–the first interviews I ever did, the first radio pieces, all of the mistakes I’ve made–will live on the internet forever. I cringe thinking that someone will find this. Like going through a pile of laundry before it’s clean and folded, crisp.  

And being praised just for the effort doesn’t feel good to me. Maybe because that’s not how I was raised. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t tell my sister and I we were special. They didn’t sugarcoat what we weren’t great at. When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina. I loved the light pink leotards and shoes. But I only took a year of lessons, in a room that smelled of chlorine, above our community pool. And I never knew why the lessons stopped, until a few days ago. My mom told me it was obvious: I was clumsy, not graceful, couldn’t keep a rhythm. And she wanted me to encourage me to do what I was good at.

But for things I was good at, the praise that came from my parents was often non-verbal. They didn’t say much at all. But it’s their actions that I remember. They were always there–every soccer game, every play, everything. Even if it was bad. They didn’t need to tell me I was special because it didn’t matter if I was. And that made it easier to try the things I was afraid of, the things I might not be good at. Without the pressure of praise, we were allowed to fail, allowed to be unsatisfied, allowed to try to make it better next time.

Still, I worry about this aversion to praise sometimes. But I was coming home from school a few nights ago, and found myself waiting for the F train in Brooklyn. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard it. Celine Dion. My Heart Will Go On. That song from Titanic. I peered around the pillar I was leaning against and saw a little boy, maybe eight, sitting at a keyboard, hands barely big enough to play those sweeping chords. He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty good. I should know, because I used to play that song when I was around the same age. And just above his left shoulder, tapping the beat to himself on his leg, was his dad. Just there.

As I got on the train, I wondered what that dad would tell his kid as they packed up to go home, if he would tell him how well he played, how special he is—if he would shower him with praise—or if he would choose that quieter option, the one I grew up with. And I hoped it would be the latter.

Katie Ferguson contemplated rewriting every sentence of this commentary, but she’ll live with it.


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