The puzzle of parental approval

Author: John Nichols '72

My mother died a few years ago. She had survived my father by some 16 years, and, as is the case with those of us who have lost both parents, it is up to us to sort through the drawers and boxes our parents left behind, some of which have not been opened for decades. This task fell largely on my youngest sister, who lived only about an hour away from my parents’ house while the rest of us were scattered around the country.

Illustrations by Jon Han

As my sister went through the things my parents accumulated over their lifetimes, she would send me bits and pieces she thought might be of interest to me, such as a picture of my mother posing in her bathing suit on the Lee Street beach off Lake Michigan and a picture of my father sitting on the front stoop of our first house holding me when I was only a few weeks old. The old photographs are reminders in black and white that my parents were at one time younger than I am now.

My father was an avid golfer. My sister found dozens of his old scorecards, some showing scores in the low 70s on very difficult courses, others showing much higher scores on much easier ones. It is easy to understand why he saved the good scorecards. It may not be as obvious why he saved the scorecards for the other rounds, but I understand. I am sure my father believed it was necessary to provide an accurate accounting of his ability as a golfer. I would have kept only the good scorecards, probably because I am not as honest as my father was. I would prefer that posterity think better of me than what I know to be the reality.

The difference between my father and me was clear in the copy of a typewritten letter my sister found when she cleaned out my parents’ attic. It was my parents’ response to a form letter from September 1968 sent by William Burke, then dean of Freshman Year of Studies at Notre Dame, asking parents of incoming first-year students to provide him with a candid assessment of their child’s abilities, hobbies and the like. The purpose of the request was so Dean Burke could “make worthwhile your son’s experience at Notre Dame” and, somewhat ominously, “effect remedies” should academic or other troubles eventuate.

I started reading the carbon copy of my parents’ letter to Dean Burke, expecting to bask in the glow of the great things they would say about their wonderful son. But I knew by the first paragraph that the letter was written solely by my father. I immediately recognized the familiar no-nonsense style of the battalion major he had been in World War II. It read like a performance report on a private bucking for PFC, and it sounded like the poor guy had little chance to get his stripe.

He allowed that I was a “good student and active in other school activities,” but he had “misgivings” about my self-discipline, noting that my associates knew me as “the late John Nichols.” I was a bit surprised by what he said. My third-grade teacher had once referred to me as “the late John Nichols,” but I did not know anyone else who had ever called me that. If anything, I was more punctual that many of my “associates.” Also, I was better than just a “good” student. If it had been up to me, I would have described myself as an excellent student. Furthermore, just so the record is clear, I was more than merely “active” in high school. Apparently, he forgot that I was president of the student council and a member of virtually every team and club the school offered.

My father went on to note that I had “acceptable moral standards.” Commenting on my hobbies, he mentioned that I had been a member of several music groups, having “nominal success,” and that I had “some ability” in debate. I would have thought at the time that the reality was a great deal more positive. If anyone had asked, I would have described my moral standards as excellent or even “exemplary,” if that had been a word I used when I was 18. I was in a rock band in high school. You will have to take my word for it when I say that we were very cool. As for debate, I, along with my three debate partners, had placed second in the state debate tournament when I was a senior in high school. “Acceptable moral standards,” “nominal success” and “some ability” — well, he must have been talking about someone else.

The most striking part of the letter, though, is the last paragraph, where my father apologized to Dean Burke for boasting about his son, blaming it on “parental pride.” Apparently, talking about his perpetually tardy, morally adequate and nominally successful son was enough to embarrass him, not from shame but for going overboard with compliments.

As I thought about it, my father’s muted assessment of, essentially, my worth as a human being should not have surprised me. He was frugal with compliments. Following some success or another I might have had, he would remind me that, while it might be nice, I needed to keep it in perspective. After all, he would say, it was not as if I had found a cure for cancer.

Maybe I would have taken the letter harder if I hadn’t just cleaned out a few drawers and cabinets at my own house. Those receptacles were filled with medals, ribbons and trophies of all kinds. They weren’t mine. They belonged to my kids, and I was reminded how my generation defined success for our children. In most cases, I cannot tell which of my three girls might have earned what awards. Most of them did not have a name on them because they were participation awards handed out in bulk for some event, such as the fourth grade track meet, the seventh grade intermural volleyball tournament or the local athletic club swim meet. There was an award for participating in T-ball, where, as I recall, it was against league rules to keep score. Evidently, the retail trophy stores had done a brisk business over the previous 25 years.

Illustration by Jon Han

My wife and I went to virtually every soccer game, track and gymnastics meet, dance recital, spelling bee, school play — you name it — through a total of 36 years of grade school and high school. We said “good job” whether or not it was true, as did all of the parents who faithfully showed up at each event. We did not reserve our praise only for the praiseworthy.

My middle daughter was 6 when she started playing soccer. I was out of town for her first game, and when I returned she said she really hoped I would make the next one because, as she told me, she was a really good soccer player.

When I went to the game, I was disappointed to find that my daughter was playing sweeper, which I understood to be the equivalent of right field in baseball. It was where the coach put the less talented kids so they would do the least harm to the team. I knew something about that, having been a fixture in right field during most of my Little League years.

So there was my daughter, standing in the field while the play was at the other end, practicing her steps from dance class, looking at the clouds, taking a keen interest in an anthill on the field and occasionally waving to me. All of a sudden the other team came racing down the field, blowing past the rest of the team, leaving only my daughter and the goalie. My daughter ran a couple of steps toward the line of attackers. She took a halfhearted swipe at the ball, missing it completely. The forwards from the other team did not even slow down. My daughter turned to watch as they dribbled the ball the rest of the way to the goal and put it in the net.

I was so angry at her. About two minutes were left before the half, and I took that time to prepare the stern talk I was going to give to her. I had a lot of big words for this 6-year-old in the speech I was drafting in my mind, words like accountability and diligence. The message would be that life was not a game; that success required hard work and waited for no man or woman. I considered whether it was too harsh to tell her that, with her lackadaisical attitude, she was likely to end up homeless, sleeping under bridges, looking for handouts to buy another bottle of cheap wine. I felt it was my duty to paint her a vivid picture of her future and make her understand that while this may seem like just a soccer game, it could be a turning point that would determine the course of the rest of her life.

At halftime, she came skipping off the field, heading right toward me. She had this beautiful mop-top of light brown curls that bounced up and down as she skipped. She had a smile from ear to ear. She came up to me, gave me a hug around the waist and asked, “So how did I do?” I smiled back. “You did great.”

I made feeble attempts to be more judicious with praise than other parents. All of our girls were involved with dance. There was always a table at the dance competitions where parents could buy a trophy for their child, ranging from something 6 inches high to a monument the size of the Stanley Cup. I never did buy one for my kids, instead seeing an opportunity for a lesson. I said something to the effect that if you had to buy a trophy, you did not earn it. While it fell short of my father’s reminder that I had not cured cancer, it was at least something. Still, I felt like a terrible father. While I was looking at myself as a kind of Horatius at the Bridge, as the last defender against the siren of sycophancy, it was my children who had to suffer. Their friends would have a trophy and they would not. There is also the possibility that my never springing for a trophy had more to do with being cheap than with the virtue of trying to teach my children well.

I do not know if the First Year of Studies sends a letter out to parents similar to the one my parents received. If so, I can imagine that the responses are quite a bit different. I would not be surprised if the letters are a thesaurus of superlatives, utilizing every possible way to say “brilliant” or “extraordinary.” Parents who may have some “misgivings” about some aspect of their child’s personality, as my father did, would nonetheless spin the negative to a positive. Today, my father’s letter would be rewritten to say that my tardiness was the result of a special gift for ignoring temporal restraints, or some such thing.

As I get older, I find myself a bit torn between the world of my father and the world I made for my kids. I am frustrated that I can’t use the word “awesome” anymore because it has lost all meaning. It used to be reserved for something that was actually awesome, like the power of God, which could turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just for taking a peek back at Sodom and Gomorrah. Now it refers to a middle linebacker who was picked late in the fifth round of the NFL draft. “Awesome” is so overused, I seldom hear it today without an adverb in front of it, as in “totally awesome” or “freakin’ awesome” or, redundant to the third power, “totally freakin’ awesome.”

An increasing percentage of the people who work with me now are from a generation that grew up on generous helpings of parental flattery. In the workplace, my age makes me a surrogate parent of sorts. I feel I have to allow for compliment inflation in order to motivate the younger troops. I seem to be less and less able to do so. More and more, I speak in my father’s voice. Where I used to say “great” or “outstanding,” I now say “good” or “fine.” I assume the day will come when I will downshift completely to my father’s vocabulary and say “nominal” or “acceptable” instead.

I am not saying our generation was totally wrong to shower our children with praise and trophies. Especially when our children were young, there was no reason to step on their self-esteem. The world would keep score soon enough. Many had their first standardized test by the time they were 4 or 5. Most had some kind of rating by the time they entered first grade. In some ways, our children might be the most frequently rated and graded generation thus far.

I also believe the religion of understatement that was part of my father’s generation had its negative side. Few of us will do anything as significant as curing cancer. The bar we had to clear to earn a pat on the back was in many cases set too high. We are left with unfulfilled lives in some respects, our star never having shined as brightly as our parents demanded.

It is understandable why our parents were the way they were. Their generation did the equivalent of curing cancer. They won a world war; they survived the economic collapse of the Depression. As a generation, they may well be entitled to the trophy. An “A” on a report card could never compare to victory in Europe.

Above all, though, my parents’ generation was remarkably honest. I could see some of that honesty in other items my sister found in their attic, one of which was an ad for our family’s first house. It included a nice drawing of the house with bold lettering at the top that said “Imitation Cape Cod.” Today, a copywriter who described a house as an “imitation” anything probably would be fired. For my parents, the honesty of the description was no doubt a relief. They knew full well they could not afford a real Cape Cod.

My parents were born before Madison Avenue made exaggeration an art form. Their generation seemed to use adjectives like they were gas-ration coupons, as if there was a limited supply and you had better make sure you had some left in your pocket in case you had to spend one on a truly remarkable achievement. They preferred the comparative; there was no reason to say “best” if “better” would do. The end result was more honest, like my father’s description of me in his letter to Dean Burke.

I would have found my father’s letter harsh when I was 18, but I see it differently now. I understand its honesty. It was true that I was a good student. It would not be true that I was a great student. I may not have been known as “the late John Nichols” by my associates, as he wrote, but I did have a problem with being on time. I still do. As much as I thought of myself as a rock music icon, the truth was I had “nominal” success, as he said. That might even have been generous. It was true, as well, that I had “acceptable” moral standards. There was no reason to resort to hyperbole for an 18-year-old who had never been tested morally in any serious way.

Maybe it is fitting that the stacks of old photographs which were stored in the attic are black and white. They reflect the understated view my parents had of themselves and their world. My mother looked a little shy posing in her bathing suit on that Lake Michigan beach. A color photo would have been too loud. It might have made her look like she was someone important, as if she had cured cancer.

John Nichols is an attorney in Minneapolis. He and his wife, Barbara (’72SMC), are the parents of Kim ’99, Emily ’01 and Kate ’05.