I want you to know that you, (fill in the blank) are very special - yes, you! You are also (circle one) quite handsome/pretty/both. That (choose one) sweater/shirt/crop top/jail issue orange jumpsuit you are wearing is totally awesome. Your sneezes are like angels giggling. You are smarter than choose one Steve Jobs/Google/Mary Poppins.
Whew, I reached my quota. That's hard work, complementing people constantly.
But, according to a presentation at a recent Storm Lake school board meeting, it is necessary. A new program suggests that teachers should hand out five complements for every one critical thing they say to a student.
Five goods to one bad is apparently the magic number that increases a kid's academic performance and tends to keep them from getting into trouble. A master teacher, however, we're told, doles out a virtual volcanic eruption of complements, 15 for every critical suggestion they may say or write.
Digesting this news, the staff here at the Pilot has been trying to live by this credo all day long. Frankly, it's wearing on our nerves. After the first burst of flattery: ("Gee your socks look spectacular today." "Magnificent job answering that telephone." "Incredible semicolon there!") it gets tough to be nothing but rear-kissing positive. I quickly learned to avoid suggesting a re-write of a lead paragraph, because that would mean more work for me to think of five more super-nice things to say.
What worries me a little in this whole philosophy is that it may tend to make each kid think they are better than others, entitled, expecting life to be a string of nothing but positive reinforcement about how wonderful they are, and leave them rather unprepared to cope when it hands out the inevitable setbacks.
Unfortunately, a whole lot of grown-ups are already convinced of how super-special they are.
The schools are right - everyone can agree that kids need lots of positive input - heck, we all do. Getting a little bit of a boost, knowing that someone notices your hard work and doesn't just dump on you constantly for whatever little things they don't like, makes a person more likely to work hard in school, a job, or a relationship.
A compliment has to be a sincere one to have any value, not just one to reach some arbitrary quota. Kids are smart, they know when they are being put on.
"Johnny, you are showing great resourcefulness and creativity in setting fire to my desk," isn't going to cut it. I suspect a real master teacher probably knows how to hand out some healthy correction and discipline too.
I think back to a book I read many years ago, "A Shining Season," about former track star John Baker, a teacher and coach at an Albequerque grade school in 1970 who was also training in hopes of making the Olympic team.
Diagnosed with cancer that crippled his dreams, Baker drove to a cliff, convinced of killing himself to spare his family agony. He gunned the engine - but suddenly, faces of his young students flashed before his eyes, children he had always urged to "do their best."
He decided he would dedicate what time he had left to the children. Baker refused pain injections, knowing they would dull his attentiveness.
He didn't hand out compliments like candy, but no one was more positive and encouraging.
Every kid had a job. One might be "Coach's Time Keeper" or "Chief Equipment Supervisor" but no one was without a role, no matter the disability or circumstances. They all were eligible to win a coveted Coach Baker ribbon for trying hard. He stayed up nights making them.
"My son was a morning monster," one mother wrote to the school. "Getting him up and fed, and out the door was hardly bearable. Now he can't wait for school. He's the Chief Infield Raker."
Baker also coached a running club, and presented trophies "for the girl, who though never a winner, wouldn't quit." No one knew the trophies were his own - he used a metal scrubber to remove his own name.
Coach Baker made a point of sending home a letter to parents for every student he had - telling them about something wonderful he had noticed in their child or something exceptional each had done. They were stunned, used to only getting report cards with "more effort needed" checked.
That is not manufacturing complements, it is finding the real good in everyone. (Similarly, teachers in Storm Lake have "Gotcha" moments for kids caught doing good things.)
One fall day, at the Aspen school he loved, the coach clutched his abdomen and fell to the ground with a ruptured tumor in his abdomen. He refused to go to the hospital and returned to school one last day, "So the kids would remember me walking tall, not helplessly lying in the dirt."
In 1971, 520 families voted whether to rename their elementary school after him - the vote was 520 to zero.
If I learned something from the book, it isn't to hand out praise to the point that it loses meaning, but to encourage people to always strive to do their best. Then they've earned the compliment.
That's when it means something.