Recently, the kids’ dentist told me I should write a book on raising children. I’m fairly certain he wasn’t being sarcastic. This, coming from the great state of Texas, is an example of what I like to think of as the American Over-Compliment.
It’s delivered with complete sincerity and is pretty much the antithesis of British understatement (where “not bad” is generally accepted to mean “excellent” and “quite good” can be interpreted as “absolutely pants-wettingly brilliant”).
Applying the same algorithm in reverse, when told my children are well-behaved, I interpret this as, “Well done. Your children have spent longer than thirty seconds in a public space without obviously terrorising anyone, breaking anything, soiling themselves or otherwise causing a nuisance.”
When my kids are complimented on their conversational skills, I am grateful that they have managed to respond to simple questions, if not articulately, at least with words rather than grunts, and without the use of the word “like” twice in each sentence. (I will lower my expectations before teenagehood sets in.)
And when praised for their oral hygiene or manners, I have now learned to smile gracefully and say “thank you” as if this behaviour is a spontaneous natural phenomenon and not due to several thousand daily iterations of “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” or “What do you say?”.
I think the cultural difference is that Brits have a tendency to expect the worst. When we’re proved right there’s a certain amount of self-righteous tutting, told-you-so-ing and head-shaking. When we’re proved wrong, we’re too annoyed at having our expectations dashed to be pleased. Examples other than children behaving well in public include, but are not limited to: the weather not being rainy, your train running on time, waiting for less than an hour in the post office.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write my parenting blockbuster. I’m thinking of calling it “How to Yell Like a Fishwife”. I think you’ll particularly like the section on positive reinforcement, provisionally titled “Well, Yes. I Should Jolly Well Hope So.”