Our Lives

Our Lives: A little praise goes a long way

CorrespondentApril 27, 2013 


Dennis Wilhelm.


Five-year-old Jacob is on the couch, watching TV. I am on the floor with the younger of my nephews, 4-year-old Bennett. We are putting together a small, combat-ready robot. Collaborating on it. I provide the know-how. Bennett provides the overall vision.

“Do you want to use this body or this one?” I ask, and Bennett points. “Which feet should we use? How many arms should it have? Do you want to make the legs like this or like this?”

Bennett considers each question carefully. After he makes a decision, I hand him the pieces, and he puts them together. They’re simple enough for a 4-year-old to manage, which is why I keep buying my nephews these kits.

“It needs some green,” says Bennett, and snaps a piece to one of the robot’s legs. If the robot was real, that inconveniently-placed body armor would hamper its movement. I do not mention this. He’ll figure those things out for himself, in his own time.

With that, the robot is apparently done. Bennett holds it in his hands, looking pleased. He turns toward Jacob. “Look what I made!”

Bennett would have said that to whoever happened to be around. If he didn’t say the actual words, it would certainly be implied. He wants praise, but even more he wants acknowledgement. He wants assurance that what he does matters.

Those words will echo throughout my nephews lives. In childhood and adulthood, at the back of most everything they do, will be that phrase. For the most part it will be unspoken. Sometimes proudly defiant, sometimes pleading, but it will always be there.

At least once, it will be directed at a particular person, and this ... well, I hope it works out, guys. I really do.

Mostly, though, they’ll be shouting it at the world, working to prove their relevance. So many people have tried to explain what drives a Vladimir Nabokov, or a Henry Ford, or a Paul Gauguin, but I don’t think this needs any explanation. It’s just, “Look what I made!” Everyone says it in his or her own way.

That drive doesn’t suddenly begin at a certain age. It’s with us right from the start, the very first drawing, the very first tower of blocks.

Jacob comes off the couch and starts putting together his own robot. I don’t know if this is sibling rivalry, or if seeing Bennett’s handiwork has stirred his impulse to create. From my spot on the floor, I can see where Jacob’s pictures are displayed – a gallery in miniature.

Jacob wants his robots to have every possible advantage in a fight. He gives them swords, shields, firearms, extra limbs, bombs, whatever he can dream up. He seems to visualize the battles in great detail.

Bennett is more of a purist. His robots typically have no weapons at all. He trusts them to get by with kicks and punches. I don’t think the actual fighting is quite so important to him.

Bennett prefers to build his robots with someone. He likes a little help, but even more he likes the social aspect. He’s not afraid to share credit.

Jacob is more self-contained. Unless he has a specific problem – you’d be surprised how hard it is to put a cape on a robot – he wants to manage it himself. Which he does. The arms and legs don’t always match up, but his robots are fearsome and formidable. He can take pride in them.

Jacob almost never says, “Look what I made!” He doesn’t seek approval as obviously as his brother, but he needs the attention every bit as much. He just doesn’t ask for it. His style is to do what he does, and quietly hope it gets noticed.

Some things are so precious they make you afraid. I imagine how my nephews would react if I wasn’t suitably impressed with their work, what would happen to that drive, that creativity, which I am now seeing. The world isn’t always kind to it.

They have disappointments – intensely painful disappointments – ahead of them, when “Look what I made!” will not bring the response they hoped for. I want to protect my nephews from those, for as long as I can.

It’s just toy robots, right? But it’s more than that. It’s a career, or a novel, or a business, or a painting, or a family, or an act of courage, or a scientific discovery, or any of a thousand other things that it may eventually become. It’s, “Look what I made!” And it won’t ever stop, for any of us.


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