Guiding Kids in a Day of Hyperbole
By Tim Elmore
Have you noticed everything today seems exaggerated? Life is happening at high volume and intensity. In a space crowded with noise, capturing people’s attention is the currency.
In such an era, we tend to use hyperbole as we communicate. We send text messages using all CAPS, three emojis, and several exclamation points at the end of our message. Our posts on social media are often the same way. Back in 2015, Facebook and Twitter jointly announced that ALL CAPS would be banned from their networks. Yonathan Arbel and Andrew Toler from the University of Alabama School of Law found no evidence that all caps improved clarity over normal text. Marc Bodnick, of Telepath, says, “Ninety percent of the time I encounter exclamation points, they reduce my perceived credibility of the content and the author.”
Yet I believe this hyperbole is having a more sinister effect than this on our kids.
Could Our Hyperbole Foster Fragility?
I now wonder if our habit of exaggeration has impacted our interaction with children and teens:
- Do we exaggerate our affirmation or criticism with words like “awesome” or “awful”?
- Do teens become numb to all CAPS, exclamation points, and expressions of outrage?
- Do we lose credibility by using hyperbolic language, making listeners stop believing us?
We’ve raised Generation Z in this kind of environment. For example, as they encounter challenging situations, parents want to express empathy and often do so in a disproportionate way. We can treat small adversities as tragedies at school. When children fall and skin their knee, we can go overboard communicating our sympathy. This exaggeration can unwittingly condition them to feel triggered over small things. Over time, kids expect a hyper-reaction to any hardship, which nudges us to ramp up our sympathy even more. Before we know it, we have a population of college students who are fragile, who require safe spaces, who need professors to soften their approach and even demand that speeches on campus be removed if they feel harsh or controversial.
In short, I wonder if our hyperbolic approach to raising our kids has backfired. Certainly, our exaggerations aren’t the only reason for fragility, but too often, what we meant as helpful has become harmful.
This trend can also work in reverse. When we tell them they’re “amazing” for putting their spoon in the dishwasher, they begin to expect and need that feedback. At competitions, we’re giving away ninth place ribbons and even trophies for participation. We want to ensure their self-esteem remains high, regardless of their effort. This has not prepared them for an employer who’ll likely see no merit in rewarding them for merely showing up. A Chief Human Resources Officer told me recently she hired “praise consultants” to keep up with her young team members’ need for affirmation on the job.
So, how do we cultivate an agile generation, not a fragile generation, as they become adults?
What I Recommend to Those Who’ve Participated in Hyperbole
- Match your words with what they’ve done. If it’s a good job, say, “good job.” Any more, and they recognize you’re not in touch with reality or they begin to need this hyperbole. In our home, we all put our dishes in the dishwasher and received appropriate thanks.
- Affirm variables that are IN their control, not OUT of their control. Author Carol Dweck reminds us that this fosters a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset. I learned to tell my daughter what made her most beautiful was her compassion for the marginalized.
- Remind kids that each one is part of a whole. We stopped using the word “special” and used the word “unique.” We knew as our kids left for college, they’d meet other smart and talented students and wanted them to spot others’ uniqueness as well as their own.
- Share more compliments than criticism—but share both so you’re believable. When we offered feedback for our kids’ work, we applauded their effort but wanted them to know if we saw room for improvement. They saw our love was unconditional yet honest.
- Limit your words. As I learned to give myself boundaries on my comments, the law of “supply and demand” kicked in beautifully. Kids today are overwhelmed, so words mean more when they are used sparingly and judiciously. Balance and consistency are key.
I will never forget a painful bike accident I had when I was sixteen years old. I was riding down a steep hill in San Diego when a skateboarder swerved in front of me, and before I knew it, he hopped off. I hit the skateboard, tumbled over the top of my bike, and slid several feet on the asphalt. I was conscious as I got up, but blood was everywhere. In fact, the muscle just under my rib cage was bulging out from under my skin. It was painful, to say the least.
I stumbled through the front door of my house, trying to keep my bleeding at bay. What I recall most vividly was how my mother responded. She immediately put her arms around me, without saying much at all. She helped me to the sofa, not worried about blood stains on the furniture. (If she was worried about the blood, she hid it well.) She asked my sister to grab some bandages and towels. As she nursed my wounds, I recall her talking to me in a calm voice, saying something like, “Wow! This must have been a doozy of a tumble. I’m sure glad you’re tough, Timothy. I’m going to make sure you make it through this just fine.”
No panic. No exaggerated emotion. No hyperbole. She knew I needed her calming effect.