Quite the Compliment

A friend of mine ran a Boston Qualifying time of just about 3:17:00 at the Providence Marathon on Sunday.  On Monday before our group run my buddy Duke and I had done a bit of a warm up, and when we arrived back to catch up with the larger group, Bill was there, ready to run. To highlight his stellar achievement, I mentioned that he had just the previous day run a marathon in the time it took us to do our warm-up run. Let’s not pay attention to the fact that here was a guy who had just run a 7:30 min/mile marathon the day before and he was out for a 5-mile run the next day. This guy is pure animal.

On our way home, my boy – he’s 12, mind you – asked me why I always seem to denigrate myself in complimenting others. Obviously, I protested – c’mon, boy, what are you talking about?  I suggested that he was fast running the marathon, not that we were slow running our 5k, but he came right back with the devastating question, “why couldn’t you have just said he was fast?”

And that just kind of hung out there for a while.

What am I going to do? Deny he was right? My 12-year old is a sophisticated enough speaker of English that he recognizes that linguistic habit. He gets the idea that the net effect of doing that is lowering my own standing with other people. In some cultures, that’s not necessarily the case, but in Twenty-first Century America, it certainly is.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but now that its been pointed out to me I can think back as far as high school and see that pattern. To show people how good they are, I have to be less.

That’s not normal.

I think it is a competitive thing for me. I strive to be better, I want to be better, and somehow someone performing at a higher level diminishes my performance. Its a ranking. While most 12-year olds don’t understand linguistics quite to the same level – or perhaps they do, they just don’t articulate themselves that way…or perhaps we just have a relationship that allows him to speak honestly to me – he nailed it. In taking control of the conversation in the way he did by just making an observation, he demonstrated a skill I didn’t know he had and demonstrated an aspect of our relationship I am proud of.

Either way, he not only went straight for the unvarnished truth, he reframed my experience, just. like. that. He listens. He processes.  He knows. We all know kids are sophisticated processors of information – as a parent, I’ve wondered and worried for years just what my kids would say about me to each other many years hence. What they’d each remember of their childhoods with me. What sort of counseling they’d need because of me, or perhaps more specifically what maladaptions would they take with them that work to a certain point and then doesn’t?

I feel a lot better knowing that, while he has definite expressions of a strong personality that will both be a great attribute for him and will also get in his way, he knows enough to be able to process these traits. I listen to him and wonder where he picks certain things up…only to hear myself utter similar things hours or even minutes later, so I know I have to show him the same skill he’s shown me. I also know that I should expect a similar response, “c’mon Dad, that’s not what I’m doing…”

He demonstrated he trusted me to listen to him and respect his point.  We have some tough conversations and yet at the end of the day, he always wants to check in with me and at the start of the day, he always wants me to walk with him to the school bus. He knows me pretty well and he’s comfortable asking me questions like “why do you denigrate yourself?”

So, it was important that I follow up with him, and thus I did. I told him that I thought about what he said, and despite my protestations I thought he was right and would seek to change my linguistic habits. “Great job” is a lot more positive than “That’s so much better than what I could do.” Positive for the recipient, and without denigrating anyone.  Lifting someone up without cutting anyone down. My boy has helped me be a better friend and person.  And, I hope, a better father.

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