"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Trouble with Compliments

It shouldn't be so hard, should it? To say something nice to someone? It should be the easiest, most natural thing in the world for kind words to roll off of our tongues and sparkle into the heart of the recipient.

But it's not always so easy or natural...or kind, to pay a compliment.

I read an article the other day titled "Stop Calling My Baby Cute" or something like that. I had to click on it, of course, because I'm sorry? What?  Where is she going to go with this? Is her baby not cute and she's sick of people lying to her? Impossible. Fact: Babies are cute.

I had to read it. I had to know.

This new mom was tired. She was exhausted and overwhelmed and all used up. When out in the world interacting with Other People in the days and weeks that followed her baby's birth, she kept hearing the same thing: "Your baby is so cute. He is just perfect." And he was...of course...until he wasn't. He was cute, sure, but he was also needy and demanding and kind of a mystery, as first babies (and most brand-new babies) tend to be. She felt guilty when her baby received these compliments because it made her feel like she wasn't appreciating his beauty, his perfection. She was only feeling, only recognizing, the hard parts of parenthood.

I get it. Kind of. But not really. I mean, I can understand completely feeling like I'm not always experiencing the Best my kid has to offer. Parents are often the ones on the receiving end of the worst sides of their kids because it is in front of his parents that is the safest place for a kid to show his less-than-shiny sides. We're the unconditionals in a world full of judgement and optional relationships.

It's why Parent-Teacher Conferences are so great for parents: We get to hear from someone who spends a LOT of time with our child what a clever, funny, cooperative, and responsible kid we have. And yes, hearing about all of his amazing attributes from his teachers makes me feel a bit guilty that I don't take more time to recognize his helpfulness or his wit. (Maybe if I didn't have to spend so much time recognizing his disrespectful tone of voice and the way he bosses around his brother, I would be able to, amiright?)

But, come on. Stop calling a baby cute? It's not going to happen. Learn to accept the compliment with grace and gratitude, Mom, because "Your Baby is Cute" and "Babies are Hard Work" are not mutually exclusive.


But it's easier said than done. I had to practice this Grace and Gratitude for a wayward compliment the other day. It wasn't easy.

For Max's March Mommy Date, he chose to go shopping for his spring wardrobe. After spending an hour in the neon and glittery world that is the Target Girls' section, we headed to the in-house Starbucks for some well-deserved cake pops and a cappuccino. While in line, a couple approached us. They were, maybe, in their 50s and had a decidedly unimpressed teenager with them.

The woman reached out and touched my arm, which was weird in itself, and said, "I'm sorry, but I have to ask..."

To which, I responded by bristling because, no, you're not sorry and no, you don't have to ask.

I prepared myself for the impending rudeness that was sure to follow a lead-up like that.

She gestured toward Max. "Where, on Earth, did you get her hair cut?"

I put my hands on Max's shoulders to steady myself, as I have had to do many times since he shared with us his preference for wearing skirts.

"His," I said, pointedly. Her hand flew to her chest in classic church-lady, pearl-clutching gesture of shock and awe.

"I cut his hair," I continued, smiling broadly. "Just yesterday, actually. Doesn't he look great?"

She looked him up and down before meeting my steely gaze.

"I am So. So. Sorry," she said, the look of disgust on her face (directed at herself, I can only allow myself to imagine) unmistakable.

"Don't be!" I assured her in a sing-song voice. "I'm not!"

And I turned my back on her, directing Max's attention to the different flavors of cake pops he had to choose between.

Here's the thing: she was trying to pay Max a compliment. I'm sure that what was to follow "Where, on Earth, did you get her hair cut?" was going to be "it is just adorable!" It had to have been, right? There's nothing wrong with that statement. Except the pronoun.

So here's where she went wrong...talking to me instead of to the person she was actually trying to compliment. Talking over the head of a child clearly old enough to understand words and to respond in some way to the words directed at him. She should have walked over to us, looked at Max, and said TO HIM, "I have to tell you, I LOVE your hair cut."


He would have beamed. I would have smiled, genuinely, and she would have gotten out the words that so desperately needed to leave her mouth.

But she didn't. So instead, she walked away, probably mortified, while I faked grace and gratitude on behalf of the little, listening ears standing beside me.

And then I bought him two cake pops, so he wouldn't have to choose.

Lesson Learned:

Just be nice to each other. Don't use pronouns when you don't have to. Accept compliments, even when they're misguided or skewed (clearly a work in progress for me). And for God's sake, let people call your baby cute. Sheesh.


  1. Our policy on misgendering is context-dependent. If it's a casual encounter, we find that it's easier to just let it go. D seems OK with this for the time being, aware that correcting everybody is a net loss. In addition, though, I always touch base when he has been misgendered to gauge his feelings on the matter.

    For people we are in relationship with, he has asked that we do ensure that they know that he is a boy. I'm sure you're familiar with how that goes, but, so far, everyone has been supportive.

    As for "he's lovely/cute/so well behaved", I simply smile and reply with "that's his public face".

  2. I completely agree. We often ignore it. This one was so in-his-face, I couldn't. And it doesn't seem to bother Max at all, either (once we sat down with the cake pops, I said, "Hey, bud, I hope it doesn't bother you when someone says 'she' by mistake." He responded with, "It doesn't. It only would if one of my friends did it on purpose even though they know I'm a boy." Perfectly reasonable.)

    I just wish it didn't seem to happen EVERY time we went anywhere. At brunch during our January date, the waiter called us "ladies" Every. Single. Time. he came to our table. I just didn't realize how gendered our world is, until I did.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this, EtF!

  3. You gave her a steely gaze because she complimented your child's hair? And got the gender wrong? (which anyone would have done) And made the "mistake" of asking you instead of speaking to him directly? Are you kidding me?
    You were snarky and rude to this poor lady, who was just being kind, and the take away lesson is just be nice to each other?? And don't use pronouns??? WOW.

    1. I know. I really struggled with my feelings about the interaction. That's why I wrote about it. It helps me process it so I can react better in the future. Thanks for reading, even though you probably won't anymore. :)

  4. I am the father of a now 21yo gender neutral son, Avery. Growing up, Avery's dress would change from day to day between "boy", "girl" and in between. I taught Avery from the start that how people treat and react to him is only their perception of him. To teach him this I showed him pictures of different people and asked him to tell me what type of people they are. After he answered what he thought each person was like I asked him if they could be totally opposite. I taught him to never get upset about how people perceived him. If we were out in public and he was in a skirt and someone said "you have a cute daughter" I would always answer that he is cute without getting upset or trying to over correct them. Avery is a marine now and last month married his best friend (a girl) from high school.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience in raising a gender neutral child. We have many of the same conversations with Max. Truly, he is never bothered when someone misgenders him. It's only me who is because I want to protect his feelings as much as I can...I'm a parent, comes with the title. Life isn't perfect, though, and everyone's feelings are hurt at some point. I need to stop projecting onto him that gender-labels will be the source of his hurt feelings. They may never be! In re-reading this post, it sounds like I got upset towards the woman who complimented Max. I really didn't. I told her not to be sorry with a smile on my face. Max had no idea of the feelings I had about the exchange. Anyway, that's the long way of saying thank you for reading and for sharing your story. And congratulations to Avery on his recent marriage and to you on the recent addition to your family. ❤️