Care and Feeding

I’m Concerned My Friends Are Lying to Their Talentless 10-Year-Old About Her Abilities

Should praise have no correlation to skill or talent?

A girl sings joyfully into a microphone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A couple my partner and I have known since college has a 10-year-old who loves to perform for an audience, but has no talent. Every single time we visit them we have to sit through an ad-libbed show in which she sings off-key and spasms arrhythmically to Kidz Bop, mouthing and mangling adult lyrics she doesn’t understand. This had been going on since she was 7. I like this kid, but I can’t stand these performances. I find them hard to sit through, but I dutifully watch, listen, smile, and applaud. I would gladly play a game with her or some other activity to replace this “tradition” in which we seem to have gotten stuck.

Lately I wonder if by playing along through dozens of these performances I am helping to create a world for this child in which she thinks she can demand attention and praise with no correlation to skill, talent, improvement, imagination, or preparation. I worry she may think that when people gather socially, she is entitled to exploit a captive audience. My partner says her little shows are annoying but harmless and that I’m probably just looking for a reason to get out of this portion of the evening. They’re probably right. But is there anything to my concerns?

—Cringing on the Couch

Dear Cringing,

I’ll let you in on a little secret—every kid does cringeworthy stuff. From singing off-key to shooting on the wrong basket during a basketball game (my kids are guilty of that), and so many other things in between. It’s just a rite of passage when dealing with tiny humans.

I think you need to look at this a little differently. Yes, I’m sure her terrible singing and dancing is annoying and makes you die a little inside, but it also gives her joy. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there are plenty of things in this world that are awful and could make the most optimistic person sad if she focused on them for long enough. If she finds some shred of happiness from performing, then you should cheer her on until you’re blue in the face.

In regard to skill, I think you also need to look at it differently. By cheering her on, you’re not creating a world for her where she’ll expect praise for being awful. Remember, you’re cheering the kid, not her skill level. I’ll give you a personal example—when I was around this girl’s age, I wanted to be a rapper (yes, seriously). I held performances for family and friends, and they gave me a lot of praise. As I grew older, I realized that being a real rapper required a skillset that I didn’t have—namely rhyme-talent, and the ability to flow words together seamlessly and rhythmically. I didn’t look back at my family and angrily ask, “Why did you lie to me by making me believe I was talented at rapping?” Instead I was like, “I love that my family and friends supported me, but if I want to take the next step as a rapper, I need to get better. Otherwise, I should find something else that interests me.” After a while, I decided that rapping wasn’t for me, and I directed my attention towards writing. As it currently stands, I’ve written four books with a fifth coming out in 2022. That never would’ve happened without having people in my life who believed in me—even during my most cringeworthy moments.

Your partner is right—just suck it up and be supportive of this kid and be happy for her happiness. It means more to her than you know.