Why I’m Learning to Take a Compliment

by Jessica Towns

Last summer, I took my daughter Ravenna to a toddler gym class. Children were clambering like termites over elaborate play structures, each with an anxious parent on the floor below. Ravenna ran fearlessly into the action and began to narrate every detail. “Climb stairs…throw orange ball…my turn…jump?!”

A father in the class turned to me and said, “Wow, she’s talking a lot for her age.”

I laughed, and before I realized what I was saying, I replied “It gets old.”

The man smiled and rushed off to save his kid’s life, yet again, but I froze, mystified by what I’d just said. Shocked at how quickly I’d turned this compliment about my daughter into something negative.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, either. Strangers would often praise her extensive vocabulary, and I’d say, “Well, she didn’t walk until 16 months…” Or, “It’s just awful how she parrots everything we say,” and here I’d insert the anecdote about the word Ravenna repeated after I dropped yogurt on the floor.

I was making it a habit to downplay the unique and special qualities of my child.

It was a habit I learned early. In junior high, I used to slouch down in my chair whenever a test was handed back to the class—mine almost always had a big red A on the top. Two of my classmates found great amusement in calling me a teacher’s pet and goody two-shoes. Unoriginal as they were, these insults stung. I knew those boys were insecure about their own academic struggles, so I shoved the test into my backpack as fast as I could. I felt guilty for succeeding, because it made other people feel bad.

Now I worry that I am passing this same message along to Ravenna. I’m afraid that sheravennareading’ll be embarrassed of her own triumphs—that she’ll purposefully fade into the background, too ashamed to contribute her whole self. My hope, of course, is that she grows up to be a self-assured woman, wholeheartedly applying her strengths to whatever she chooses to pursue. But how can I expect her to value her gifts and achievements if I don’t?

The truth is, I love that Ravenna is talking so early. It’s a joy to listen to her wordy sermons, delivered with such earnest. We laugh at each new mispronounced word. Sure, the chatter gets old sometimes, but mostly it’s fun. It’s crazy that I won’t celebrate this for fear of offending other parents. I’m proud of her in so many ways, but it means nothing if I don’t say it.

I think we fear that our children will become narcissists if we tell them too often how special they are; and in this selfie-obsessed culture, it’s a valid concern. But the counter-curse to narcissism is not self-deprecation—it’s an understanding that other people have gifts and strengths and value as well. If our kids can see themselves in a positive light and learn to shine that light on others, they will make a real difference in the world.

As a mother, it’s my job to model self-acceptance for my daughter; to take pride in my own achievements and be grateful for my blessings; to share my stories of success, because it opens the door for other people to tell their stories. It’s up to me to set aside my anxieties and let the A-student shine. It can start with figuring out how to gracefully take a compliment. Next time another parent points out something cool about Ravenna, I will say, unsarcastically, “Yes! I love that about her.”

About the Author

dsc00978Jessica Towns is a full-time mom and two-time PEPS graduate. She lives in Wedgwood with her husband Will and daughter Ravenna, and spends her limited free time writing and drinking a lot of coffee. Jessica holds a civil engineering degree from Seattle University.

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