Dumping the Zero-Sum: In praise of praise

Talking Heads 1 by Fran Hogan

A few weeks ago, Judy Dunn of Cat’s Eye Writer, wrote about fostering and building a blogger’s community. Her advice? Give praise and compliments. Focus on the positive. Tell people when they do something that you like.

It’s a lesson she learned while monitoring first-graders on the playground. Like many such lessons, it has a broad appeal and lots of applications.

As parents, we too often get caught up in the comparison trap, wondering whether our kids measure up and, by extension, whether or not we measure up in the background. When we are standing on such uncertain, shaky ground, it’s next to impossible to toss out a line to someone else. If another parent seems to be succeeding where we feel we are not, it can be difficult to offer praise or admiration. We’re too mired in our own perceived shortcomings, that awful inner wince.

In this view, parenting is a zero-sum game, where one person’s success is exactly counterbalanced by another person’s failures. I’m trying to take a different approach, one where my successes and failures (because, let’s face it, we all have a measure of each) are simply mine, not part of a cosmic tally where our scores are continually reshuffled. In that case, building a parenting community is more like building a web, each strand supporting and in tune with the whole.

What works for parenting can work for writing as well. In the isolation of my office, tapped into a network that bursts with stories of authors who have agents and book contracts, it is easy to buy into that zero-sum thinking. It’s easy to believe, in other words, that one person’s success is a measure of my failure. The problem with zero-sum thinking in parenting and writing is that we’re almost always on the zero end; there is always someone who is doing more, or, seemingly, doing it better. The balance will never end up in our favor. Much better for our parenting, our writing (and our mental health) to offer up a full measure of praise for the writing that inspires us, the journeys that make us gasp in admiration.

As Judy Dunn writes in her post on building a blogging community, it is easier to point out flaws than strengths. We tend to settle into the complacency of our steady expectations, not rocking the boat unless something goes wrong. If we shift those expectations — of ourselves, of others — to include a measure of gratitude and praise, we transform the communities that count us as members.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be doing just that — offering up short lists of parents, writers, and bloggers who inspire me. Please look for those lists in the weeks to come, and, in the meantime, tell me in the comments, what inspires you today? Who can you praise? What community can you foster?

11 thoughts on “Dumping the Zero-Sum: In praise of praise

  1. I could not agree with this post more! I get very caught up in comparisons — in all aspects of my life, but especially writing because it’s so easy. I loved Judy’s post and I’m glad to see it carried through in others’! As for me: I try to praise my kids each day because they inspire me to grow as a mom of older kids — respecting and encouraging their increasingly independent lives. I love the writing community I’ve found through blogging and tweeting, and I really try to foster those relationships. These connections really enrich my life.

    • Julia,
      Thanks for stopping by. I love what you say about praising kids and fostering your writing community. As a fan of your blog at http://www.wordsxo.com/ I know you’ve got a great writer’s community going. It’s so much better to relish those connections than to get stuck in the comparison trap — yet I still fall in. I guess we can just keep pulling each other out and up? πŸ™‚

  2. Having just spent the morning with you, I reflected on what I can praise with that in mind….Here are a few items that made me smile:
    1. MacK made her first swim to the raft today. I think I’ve praised her for that three times already and it only happened 3 hours ago.
    2. I love seeing how confident and comfortable and in charge you are with your own kids. Consider yourself praised.
    3. Finally, I must praise your beloved husband for his endless commitment to being pushed off the dock in his role as Big Fish. He really embraces what feels fun for the kids.
    Snaps to you both!

    • Chelle,
      The lake was lovely! Hurray for MacK on the dock πŸ™‚ Thanks for the bloggity high-fives. My dear husband loves that game as much as the kids do.

  3. Lisa,

    I love the way you have applied this idea to parenting. Very inspiring.

    The looking for good got to be a game in my classroom. Long before the social media “expert badges,” I launched an “experts program” with my first graders.

    6-year-olds are more socially savvy than we give them credit for. They instinctively knew that Sara gives the best “feel better” smiles and Josh can help you get unstuck with an addition problem. One little boy, who struggled mightily with math and reading could create the most amazing choreographed dances to rap songs and would teach others (except for some of us, who had not one ounce of rhythm or coordination!) So he was our go-to dance instructor on the playground.

    Nice blog here. My parenting years are over but what a great resource you are providing. : )

    • Judy,
      Thanks so much for stopping by! What great stories from your classroom. I definitely think we have a lot to learn from those first-graders, though I doubt there’s anyone who can teach me how to dance in rhythm :).
      I’m really glad you like my blog — I get a lot of ideas from you at Cat’s Eye Writer.
      I hope your broken wrist heals quickly.

  4. Lisa,
    I am so grateful that Judy’s blog led me to yours, where you continue to inspire me with your breathtaking writing ability. You have such a gift of expressing my own heart in ways that I didn’t even know were possible. I can relate in so many ways to this post.

    I have been thinking quite a bit about this subject lately – and how easy it is to get caught up in that deadly comparison game. Counting our followers, subscribers, comments, likes and re-tweets and then, of course, finding ourselves lacking with those who have “more”.

    It takes time and thought to respond with generosity and praise, to recognize the good. Thank you for continuing the discussion.

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