Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Complementary Response to Compliments

A story. 

When I was a younger lad of about 11 years old, my friend Ryan was at my home. While visiting with my mother, he passed along a message from his mother. 

"My mom wanted me to tell you that she thinks (little Blackwell) is a very well-behaved, well-mannered young man," he said. 

As Ryan recounted recently, my mother — without hesitation — responded thusly: "Boy, has he got her fooled."

There are other, similar anecdotes that I witnessed first hand while growing up. I can recall an elderly distant relative telling my mom at a family gathering that her three boys were "so good looking" and "so well behaved." 

My mom responded with a hearty roll of her eyes before replying "Oh yeah, they're juuust perfect."

This folks, was the house I grew up in. Not that we ever had an excuse to be overflowing with self-satisfaction, but if either of my two brothers or myself got too big for our britches, we didn't have to wait long to be put back in our place. 

It was good to be confident, but never arrogant. Be proud, but never be guilty of hubris. And, if I'm disclosing all here, I'd say we learned that it's better to be guilty of false modesty than no modesty at all. 

That notwithstanding, we learned that people enjoy few character traits more than someone who is genuinely self-deprecating and can laugh at their own foibles. 

These stories aren't a backhanded way for me to pat myself or my devastatingly handsome brothers on the back. I'll admit that all three of us were unruly disturbers of the highest order. (I'll provide a more detailed account when I'm positive the statute of limitations has expired on our many transgressions.)

And we certainly have character flaws that leave us just a hair shy of being perfect. 

No, I use these stories to explain and illustrate where my head is when someone compliments my kid. Accepting praise of any kind gracefully is apparently not something I do with ease. 

Today when someone compliments my kid. My first instinct is to agree. 

"You know this person is right. My boy is just about damn near perfect!" I'll think to myself. (His grandmothers have the same response — however, they do not entertain any doubts about its accuracy.)

But one must respond with some balance lest you convey the impression that you think your child's diaper smells like roses. 
Mrs. Blackwell. Lovely and overloaded with compliments
from her always-considerate husband.

As I often do, I follow Mrs. Blackwell's lead. 

Another story. 

When we first started dating, I would compliment Mrs. Blackwell on how she looked. Yes, I still pay these compliments today too.

When I'd pick her up for a date I'd say something like "You look great," and I meant it. Now, most people I've met in life are quick to respond to a compliment with a compliment. Tell someone they look nice and they'll often reply "You look nice too!" 

But instead of doing so, Mrs. Blackwell would (and still does) smile and return a compliment with a simple, sincere thank you. She doles out compliments too, just not on a tit-for-tat basis. 

For someone so conditioned to receiving the obligatory boomerang compliment, this was jarring at first. "I just said you look nice, now you're supposed to say something nice about me."

Today, this is one of the many things I've come to appreciate about my wife. And her approach has been instructive for me. 

Now, when someone says, "Your little boy sure is cute!" or "Is that your little boy with the full diaper and the ring of chocolate around his mouth eating gravel?" I just reply with a simple "Thanks" and leave the extent of my pride open to interpretation. 

Ultimately, I agree with the assertion that pride comes before the fall. I also get the strong feeling that excessive pride comes before your kid turns three.  

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