Needing to be seen

shutterstock_86249287Back when I taught preschool the other teacher and I were sitting watching the kids run around the indoor play space. She was telling me the problem with praise.

“See, when you praise them you are telling them that your approval is conditional,” she told me. “Plus you’re creating more need for it. It’s never enough. If you say it’s good this time and don’t next time, they think whatever they did next time is a failure. You have to let them build their own internal approval systems.”

“But then what do you say to them? What do you say when they show you a picture or something like that?” I was skeptical.

“You describe it.”

Just then Lori* trotted by and she happened to be wearing new shoes.

“Hey Lori!” Amy called. “Look at you! You have brand new shoes!”

Lori stopped, looking down at her shoes as if she’d forgotten that she was wearing them.

“I got them last night,” she said. “My mommy took me after school.”

“They are certainly bright blue shoes!” Amy said.

Lori grinned then skipped off sunnier than she had been before.

“There you go,” Amy said to me. “She just wants to be seen.”

Praise is easy but seeing someone is hard. It takes so much more effort. We can toss off a compliment (“Nice shoes!”) much more easily than we can stop a minute to focus and see the shoes.

You know how sometimes we leave a conversation with someone feeling slightly rumpled and disgruntled and realize it’s because we feel like they could have been talking to anyone and it wasn’t us they were talking to at all. We all want to be seen and acknowledged.

It feels lousy when no one sees you. It feels lonely. We all want people to see our metaphorical shoes, really see them and see us wearing them and note that we are here.

I was twenty-one when Amy and I had that conversation and it’s stuck with me every since.

* Name changed

This was a repost from my former personal blog, this woman’s work.

Comments 17

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention On needing to be seen | this woman's work --

  2. What a great post – I really respond to it because I try to do this in my preschool classroom. It’s not easy to explain to others! I’m printing it out – hope that’s okay.

  3. Awesome. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Instead of saying “you’re so smart!”, saying “wow, you are trying really hard to do that puzzle.” Really stopping to see what they’re doing and praising their effort, not some intrinsic value.

  4. I totally get what you’re saying here and it’s true…mostly… but I can see it backfiring for husbands and other more (im)mature relationships.

    I picture the following…

    “I see you got you hair cut”

    “Oh you noticed, yes I did”

    “You have bangs now”

    “Yeah, for a change, you know?”



    Haha…you know it happens

  5. I can see proof that this is true whenever someone who isn’t my kids’ parent says something to them that shows they actually see them. They really light up when someone says something really reflective to them instead of generic “things to say to teenagers” or hollow praise “you’re so pretty”.

  6. I love this post. It’s so true. Dec’s preschool practiced this principle and I’m glad to be reminded of it. I think about meaningful praise a lot… I know a whole lot of people who are really REALLY good at meaningful – or at least highly detailed – criticism. I wish we were more inclined to attempt to be so clever with our compliments.

  7. Well, this comes straight from the book you told me/us to read — How to Talk so your kids will listen/How to listen so your kids will talk (or something like that). They tell us that compliments should always be descriptive in nature and instead of saying “what an awesome drawing” we should remark “oh, I really like the way you shaded those mountains, it gives the picture such realism and a 3D quality” (I’m actually describing Kelvin’s drawing from an hour ago that’s sitting on the coffee table next to me). I think it’s one of the only things from that book that I’ve been using consistently since I read it and I can totally see the a difference in the boys’ reaction. (Now if I only could put the rest of the book into practice! 🙁 ).

    Great story!

  8. boy, do i relate strongly to this. praise can sometimes hurt because it feels like evaluation (and expectation to continue to be “good”) to me.

  9. I used to teach preschool and used this technique constantly. One of my favorites, when presented with a scribbled mess of blue or red or yellow, I would exclaim in an excited voice, “Wow! You’re drawing looks like it is MOVING, there is so much action in it!” Heh.

  10. Hi Dawn. I am so glad I found your blog today. Just two posts, and I am loving it already. Its gorgeous. Particularly this post caught my eye straightaway. Seeing vs praising, wow. They do say indifference is worse then hatred don’t they? Looking forward to reading more. Cheers 🙂

    P.S New book shelves? Wow.. you should be the happiest person there is. 🙂

Leave a Reply