Can we praise too much?

What an enduring truism, a way to a woman’s heart is through praise of her children. Why is it that when someone is quick to notice a particular gift in one of our offspring we feel a sense of warmth for that very person? Is it true that sometimes too much praise can set up an addiction in a child that is difficult to break?

Being able to distinguish between genuine praise and praise linked to an agenda is an emotional tool all should carry. In Sense and Sensibility, Social Vampire Miss Steele was hoping to ingratiate herself with anyone of any value in her path of aspiration. Lucy Steele had only her wits and scheming to rely upon; she had no fortune and few social contacts that could help her, and she was not a great beauty. All she had was an ability to praise, an ability to ingratiate and she used it to capacity. It is hard to be too critical of Miss Steele. I feel a certain sympathy for her, as I suspect her creator did too. Miss Steele, alone of all the villains or near villains in the Austen Six, ends where she wanted to be. She secured the man and the social position at the end of the novel. What is it about Social Vampire Miss Steele that shows us a universal character belonging just as much in the modern world as the Austen world? She appraises her targets well. She is able to detect the best angle for each personal manoeuvre; in the case of mothers, she picked her mark realising a lack of genuineness would likely not be detected. As Jane Austen states, “Fortunately for those who pay their court through such foibles, a fond mother ….in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous.” Hence in this case, excessive flattery can get you everywhere and frequently does.

Unlike our supportive and loving sisters, Marianne and Elinor, Social-Vampire-Lucy Steele knew the value as well as the art of flattery. She witnesses the Middleton children going through a visitor’s things, throwing objects out of the window, pinching visitor’s fingers and generally performing terrible tantrums until the mother finally notices. Upon witnessing such absolute mayhem in the Middleton family what does Lucy say to Lady Middleton, the mother? “I never saw such fine children in my life.” Even Lucy Steele must have guessed that someone, Elinor and Marianne perhaps, would see through her flattery. But this did not stop her for she had sized up Elinor and Marianne. They would not vie for attention in the same way, they would not try to outsmart or out flatter the social vampire. Jane Austen’s heroines never manipulate in such a manner. They were happy to let Mrs Middleton bask in the flattery. They did not see it as their duty to alert Mrs Middleton to the falseness of the fawning flatterer. Naturally, Mrs Middleton preferred the Miss Lucy Steele to Elinor and Marianne and they were happy just to be themselves. They would never stoop to giving compliments to curry favour.

One of the dangers of flattery is we can become addicted to it. If we do not have a sense of our own self worth, we will always need others to bolster us. In Mansfield Park, the Nasty-Mrs Norris, in an effort to continually bolster her own position, was always happy to flatter the little Spoilt Princess Misses Bertram. She fed their need for flattery well past the time it should have been given up. Alas, they became dependent on adulation and consequently were then vulnerable to others. Mrs Maria Rushworth, nee Spoilt Princess Bertram, who made the miserable mistake of putting financial and social position above reason, craved such flattery and so fell prey to Serial-Seducer-Henry Crawford. A much wiser, emotionally intelligent character, was Fanny Price who could see that the compliments from a man ‘who has complimented so many’ for such a purpose, are worthless indeed. Flattery can be delightful at times, but it is also a double edged sword.


Filed under Childhood

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