My five-year-old, Maren, has been obsessed with favorites lately. “Mommy, you are my very best mom in the whole world,” she’ll say to me. I know she’s angling for a reply. Preferably something along the lines of, “And you, my most precious, are my favorite child on the planet.” The problem is, I have four other children, all of whom would be peeved to know I said Maren was my favorite, and Maren would delight in reporting the news right back to them.

So instead I respond with something like, “And you are my favorite five-year-old in this family,” which feels pretty lame coming from the very best mom in the whole world. But at least it will prevent civil war from breaking out in our household, which is something we always seem to be on the verge of these days, with the temperatures over a hundred degrees, and all of the kids cranky from watching too many hours of Netflix. In fact, I think they’ve watched a billion hours of Neflix this summer. They’ve probably watched more Netflix than any other kids in America.

Maybe not. But they have watched a lot of Netflix. And in our culture, where every reality tv show episode promises “the most dramatic moment in [insert show name here] history,” sometimes it feels like the only way so show strong feeling is to use a superlative. I can’t just tell my friend that I made a good batch of cupcakes for dessert last night. If I want to show just how good the cupcake was, I need to rename it “Shelah’s mind-blowing, mood-altering cupcake,” take a picture of it, and put it on Facebook, where my friends won’t just “like” it, they’ll “LOVE!” it. We need a “LOVE!” button on Facebook, don’tcha think?

The thing is, I grew up with a grandpa who took great pleasure in catching us saying something like “I love chocolate” (he owned a chocolate store), because he would pounce on us, saying “You can’t love chocolate because it’s an inanimate object.” Where chocolate is concerned, I beg to differ, but I get his point, too much praise becomes a form of faint praise. And I hear his voice in my head when I thank my son for doing “such an amazing job pulling the garbage cans up from the curb” (how hard is it, really?), or telling my baby that she is the “very most beautiful baby in the entire universe.” I hear his voice when I watch The Bachelorette and see Emily with a grimace on her face for an entire date pronounce her evening “AMAZING.”

So if you hear me saying that my kids are “fair to average piano players” or that my husband has “pretty nice” hazel eyes or that our dinner was “good enough to make again,” don’t think I’m lacking enthusiasm. I’m just trying to rein it in. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking they have to be the biggest, best or most anything in order to be special to me. Besides, when something is really freaking awesome, I want to have the words to say that, and not waste my praise like the girl who cried wolf.

What do you think? Is it necessary, or even possible, to cut back on superlatives or am I just getting hung up on semantics? And, more importantly, can we get Chris Harrison to stop saying “AMAZING”?

Meanwhile, I’ll be checking in to hear what you have to say while eating some absolutely magical cupcakes and watching the five billion hours of movies that are in my Netflix queue. With the five smartest, kindest, most beautiful children in the entire universe, of course. I’m having fun with my kids, watching movies and eating too many cupcakes.


  1. Kristen

    July 9, 2012

    I think as a society we’ve gone too far with the “Everyone’s a winner!” attitude. In the Pixar film “The Incredibles,” Mr. Incredible says, “It’s psychotic. They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity!”

    Words matter deeply to me. I get hung up on semantics, too. Even though my baby is just a week shy of a year old, I’m already careful how I talk to him. I try to refrain from telling him “Good job!” to every little thing he does. Yes, he was an early walker and is quite dextrous for such a youngling, but that doesn’t make him intrinsically more brilliant or more talented than any other baby.

    I remember being 7 and stating that I don’t do “best friends” because I was tired of all the drama around “best friends.” Where we fell in each other’s queue of “best friends” changed weekly and it was somewhat exhausting to remember if I was Lisa’s 2nd best friend or 4th best friend that week.

    Anyway, keep on keeping on. I think you’re doing fine. 😉

  2. Janell

    July 9, 2012

    I feel this way about standing ovations. I’m that weirdo who stays firmly planted in her seat unless someone has truly given a performance which has increased my appretiation of the art, something which exceeds my expectations, or something that I will truly never forget.

    On the other hand, I often strive to never let a sincere complient go unspoken. Sure Bob didn’t give an incredible performance, but he has done an admirable job developing and sharing his talents.

  3. Kristin

    July 9, 2012

    I completely agree, though at times I have fallen victim to overuse of superlatives.

    I like your description of “good enough to make again.”

    I have been trying to be more specific with my kids and avoid the generic “good job.” Such as: “Thanks for pulling the trash cans in without being asked. That showed personal responsibility.” “You didn’t come in first place in this race, but you beat your best personal time which shows you are becoming a faster swimmer.” Just a description of the behavior feels like praise, because I’ve noticed them, and encourages them to continue that desired behavior. And it helps me avoid those generic superlatives.

  4. jody

    July 9, 2012

    I too, feel that we can abuse wonderful words (wonder full, for example). So, I save my highest praise for the highest of praises. As far as naming one child above another, it always warms my heart to think of the movie, “Babe”. The question is asked, “What is your name?” (What kind of pig are you?) Babe points out he does not know, but that his mother called them (the littler) all the same name. “Babe. . . she called us all Babe.”

  5. Grandma Honey

    July 9, 2012

    On the other hand, I use superlatives more than I should perhaps, but I sincerely mean what I say…or I don’t say it. I think I just need a larger vocabulary.

  6. Blue

    July 9, 2012

    Just went on a bike ride and stopped by to check on Rose’s rose bush. If I’d read this post before I went out, I’d have stopped to see about those cupcakes! 😉

    You’re such an amazing, accomplished, wonderful, great-hearted, flexible, talented, creative, insightful, generous, thoughtful, beautiful person and friend.

    I always avoid exaggerating, too. ♥ 😉

  7. Amanda

    July 9, 2012

    Ok, this is funny, because it brings up a classic pet peeve of mine regarding the use of exclamation marks. In law school I had a professor point out that if one had to use an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence it was an indication of the fact it was not well-written in the first place. Since then, I’ve realized the wisdom in that statement, as it has forced me to reconsider/rework some of the things I write. It has also led me to become frustrated beyond description when I receive texts (or emails) that have repeated exclamation marks at the end of each sentence.

    “Really?” I always think. “Do you really feel that strongly or are you using hyperbole out of fear of offending me if I don’t think I’m the best thing that’s come into your world since sliced bread?”

    It bears strong resemblance to the feelings I had when signing Junior High School yearbooks.

  8. Justine

    July 9, 2012

    Our kids see through it, I’m certain of that. Over praising, especially when it’s unnecessary (for fulfilling already expected duties, for example) feels hollow to me, so I’m sure it would feel that way to a younger child, who is often more honest with accepting what she’s feeling than an adult.

    I think of that section in the Tiger Mom book when she talks about not accepting a hand-drawn gift from her daughter because (paraphrase ensuing), “It was crap and we both knew it – She put no thought or effort into it. Why should I praise it? It didn’t deserve praise.” I feel like the methodology was harsh but the underlying theme rings true. We too often jump to ‘AMAZING!’, when hardly a ‘satisfactory’ was warranted. So I’ve tried to back away from the verbal ledge, as it were. I’ve replaced a lot of hollow praise with ‘Thank you’, or ‘I appreciate that’, especially where household jobs or responsibilities are concerned.

    I’ve got a son with a driving learner’s permit right now, and after the first time he drove, he asked me, “Well, how’d I do? Was it awesome?” He knew it wasn’t awesome. He knew it was terrifying. I told him he was awful, just awful. He chuckled and said that ‘yeah, ok, he knew it had been bad’. Then I told him he’d get better, and I’d help how I could. And he has gotten better. And he feels great about it now.

    Boy, is it hard.

  9. Shelah

    July 10, 2012


    I was just thinking about that section of the Tiger Mom book. On Sunday my Isaac, who is 7, came home with a thank you card he had written for me in Primary. It was obvious that the teacher had spent a lot of time on the card, making it pretty with paper cutouts and stuff like that. The inside was printed with a spot to fill in the blank for the person’s name, and then it said “I am so thankful to you for” and it left most of the card for the kid to fill it in. Isaac had just written “everything.” I could tell he had done a slipshod job of it, probably eager to get back to horsing around with his friends, but he was also looking at me when he opened it. Should I go all Tiger Mom on him and tell him that he was being lazy? Should I praise him for giving it to me? Instead I just mumbled a little “thanks” and threw it in the trash when he walked away.

  10. EMILY

    July 10, 2012

    I love this. It was fun to read and I identify intimately with the billion hours of netflix, the 100 degree weather, and even the “you’re the best mom in the world” conversation (only mine is a 6 yo Melissa). I also cracked up at your comment (9). I actually LOL’d, though this is yet another proof of your point … everyone lol’s at everything. I want to say, “Did you really laugh OUT LOUD at that? Cuz it’s not that funny.” Now we need a new acronym … gelart (guffawed embarrassingly loud after reading that) or LOLMLTY (laughed out loud much louder than you), perhaps?

  11. Laurenkri

    July 11, 2012

    I liked this post. It was good. 🙂

    I also like the comments. @Shelah I wonder if at times like that our children look at us to measure our reaction, not necessarily looking for praise, but waiting for an indication of the type of trust to put in us; trust to just love/praise their every effort or trust to give them doses of reality (although it is likely I am giving a 7 year old too much credit…?) both sound good in different contexts. I think it comes down to the role we want/are best suited to play in our child’s life.

    If we want to be the former it can be done well. Our kids come to realize we are the one they come to for affirmation and glowing praise. I think often they learn that mom’s standard is different from the rest as they get our into the world, but they appreciate that later as ‘having a mom who was enthusiastic, and who made me feel like a million bucks.’

    If we want the latter it also can be done well. Our kids come to us knowing we will be real with them, the way the world will be, but that we will do it in a way that encourages them forward. Unlike the world they can trust us to critique without shutting them down. They may praise us later for ‘being the mom who helped strengthen my character, and taught me the value of being honest with myself.’

    Maybe one of our most important jobs as parents is making sure that there are enough good people in our children’s lives to play the roles we cannot or don’t want to take. Perhaps this is why it has been proven that families who make sure their children are close to their grandparents, or grandparent like figures, are healthier. They increase the likelihood of filling the roles we may not be able/know how to play.

  12. Sage

    July 15, 2012

    I enjoyed this discussion. Thank you.

    Laurenkri, I especially appreciate you pointing out the different methods. I’m hoping not to shut down my kids with too much honesty. I think I depends on the kids’s personality too. I struggled many years with the honesty of my husband about my creativite efforts. I was shut down emotionally by his honesty for years. Painfully. But I came to grow past it…probably just in the last year. Maybe I’ll finally write my book, finish my paintings and create my masterpiece. I still wish he liked poetry just a little.

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