Wednesday, January 16, 2013

In Defense of Criticism

One of my jobs right now is to write the first three chapters of my dissertation. I'm basically reading a ton of articles and deciding if and how to cite them, and most of the articles are only peripherally related to my research (which lends credence to my work - yay!). There's a lot of good stuff that I can't really use, such as today's discovery that, in one study, "adolescents consistently received the least positive evaluations, being the targets of the most criticism, the least praise, and the most efforts to change physical appearance" (Striegel-Moore and Kearney-Cooke, 1994, p. 384).


Twelve hates criticism. I don't mean that I constantly criticize her and it bothers her, I mean that she hates any mention of anything that's remotely negative, like not getting an good score on an assignment. She'll even call me out on it ("Gee, mom, that's not very nice"), and I go back and forth between feeling like I'm being too critical and worrying that she's becoming an entitled, snowflaky brat. Thirty-four out of 50 is less than 70 percent, which isn't very good! I wouldn't be doing you any favors by praising you for doing below-average work. And you want me to say something positive about it? Surely you jest.

It's possible that I am too critical. It is what we do in my family, and we're pretty good at it. We often think of it as a negative thing, and it certainly can be. We are quite capable of picking on each other to the point where we lose track of our positive attributes, although for the most part I think we're getting better about it. However, a critical perspective on the world is a very useful skill, assuming that it's used for good instead of for evil and deployed gracefully: It allows you to foresee potential problems, ask tough questions, make good decisions, and is a very useful characteristic to have in a friend (not to toot my own horn, but ... me). 

If you are house-hunting, take me with you. I will ask you if you really want a twelve-square-foot kitchen when you are one of our community's main hosts. (Answer: No. Buy the house with the full-sized kitchen and large backyard that just so happens to have a partially finished attic that would make an excellent sewing room.) 

If you just got dumped, call me. I will recognize very quickly that the guy was a total douche canoe and gently encourage you to stop wasting your time worrying about his bullshit list of non-reasons. He dumped you because he knew from the beginning that he was moving away in five months and figured he would enjoy your lovely company in the meantime without telling you the truth. (Side note: It is astonishing how susceptible women are to believing that being rejected by men is their own fault and that they need to figure out what they can change about themselves to be accepted. Come on, sisters! Demand that your partner be with you because he absolutely cannot help but be with you!)

If you are having trouble envisioning your dissertation research project, talk to me. During Twelve's volleyball games last season, I helped one of the other mothers sort out her thoughts about her dissertation. All I did was ask questions about her target population and methodological approach, but she said it was more useful than talking with her advisor. A critical perspective just might be essential to the performance of academic work. Research starts from a place of critical inquiry; from asking the question What is going on here? If your orientation towards the world isn't one of trying to figure out why things tick, you're probably not going to make it. 

If you are shopping for clothing for yourself, take me with you. Under no circumstances should you go with me to shop for clothing for me, since nothing fits and it's all mass-produced crap anyway, but I am brilliant at helping other people pick out clothes. I'll tell you if something looks like crap because it doesn't fit properly, it's designed poorly, or it's a ridiculous style in the first place (nobody looks good in those shirts that are gathered under the boobs and then flare out stiffly). Just the other day, Twelve and I were at the trendy local resale shop (staffed entirely by 20-somethings who ignore me almost completely) looking for a pair of jeans for her and exercising our critical thinking skills together.

We have a pretty good shopping routine, which I think developed (now that I think about it) as a form of Mother-Daughter Bonding Time. I am a fairly impatient shopper, but I've learned to cram myself into the premise of shopping with Twelve and have built up my tolerance to the point where I can do it for tens of minutes at a time. Truthfully? It is almost not possible for me to care less about the specifics of what she wears. I do not care which shirt or pants or type of socks she picks, as they all look pretty much the same to me. I could accomplish the same clothing acquisition objectives by giving her some cash and reading a book in the car. But it is an important investment in this whole intensive parenting thing that I'm trying, so I gird up my proverbial loins and participate.

In the initial rack-combing stage, we both hold up things for the others approval; sometimes my suggestions are actually acceptable and usually if I grimace and shake my head at something particularly heinous she puts it back. Once we have an armload of possibilities, she tries everything on and shows me anything that she's seriously considering so I can weigh in. I wait just outside the fitting room during this part, and am careful to examine each prospective garment gravely, giving the impression that I am invested in the process. I also serve as the hanger fairy, putting everything back on the hangers. It keeps me busy, and I empathize with the employees whose job it is to run on the hamster wheel of putting clothes back on the racks.

Twelve has good taste and modest expectations in both propriety and quantity, which makes my role as the Final Arbiter an easy one. We almost always reach an easy consensus on what to buy; very occasionally I'll veto something outright because it's particularly awful or unnecessary, and she acquiesces gracefully. She humors my principled objections to billboard clothing and I indulge her desire to wear name brands by allowing garments with discreet logos. Often our final decisions are price-based; in our jeans shopping foray, I had her try on jeans at all price points, with the logic that I'd rather pay more for a perfect pair of jeans than spend the same amount on several not-quite-right pairs. She, thrifty Scottish soul that she is, was aghast at the notion of spending $100 on a single pair of used jeans. She's not wrong about that, and luckily none of them fit anyway. When it came to tops - of which she already has approximately a thousand - she narrowed it down to two. Both carelessly assembled of cheap materials, and both reminiscent of the eighties. I allowed the weirdly-vintage-looking floral one, because it was deeply discounted, but said that the neon pink one just wasn't worth the ten bucks. Twelve agreed, and off we went to the register. 

It's a small thing, but I want Twelve to be able to make fine distinctions like that. I want her to have the ability to determine that she doesn't need the shirt, that the shirt probably retailed for less than $10 in the first place, that the purpose of the outing was to buy jeans, and that the discounted shirt was a sufficient treat for the time being. 

She's learning fast. At tea today, she told me about the elaborate guarding rituals at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. She was pretty amazed by the precision and complexity of the whole thing, and I was just happy that she was showing enthusiasm about something, when she asked why they only do that for those three people. What's the difference between them and all of the other people? she asked. That's a very good question, I replied. Why don't they just do it for the highest ranking people? she continued. Or, I said, for everyone, with emphasis on the 'everyone.' 

I don't know (or care) very much about military rituals, but I love that Twelve asked the question and I hope that she asks it when she visits Washington, DC with her class in March.

As I wrote these paragraphs, I realized that I see the world as a series of problems to be solved and situations to be analyzed and then improved. Striegel-Moore and Kearney-Cooke also found that "adolescent girls were rated significantly fatter than adolescent boys" by their parents, even though there was no gender difference in the reported BMI ratings. 

I spy a problem. 

My analysis is that this finding is consistent with beauty norms that require girls to be thin and masculine norms that allow boys to be less concerned about the way they look. 

This situation should be improved, perhaps by sweeping changes in media portrayals of men and women and by a shift in societal expectations of everyone. 

If this means that I am too critical, I don't care.  

Work Cited

Striegel-Moore, R. H., and Kearney-Cooke, A. (1994). Exploring Parents' Attitudes and Behaviors About Their Children's Physical Appearance. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Vol. 15, No. 4, 377-385.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You, brave reader, are invited to commiserate, congratulate, reminisce, and/or respond lovingly in the comments. Nasty comments and negativity of all kinds may be submitted to