Parental praise was not always positive for Terri Apter as she was growing up, the child of Jewish professionals in Chicago. “Both of my parents felt the duty of the child was to provide naches for them, a pride in things they could share.”
These expectations were hard to live with, and Apter left for Edinburgh University as soon as she could, later moving to Cambridge for postgraduate study and a career as a writer and psychologist. There she married an Englishman, and stepped into a relationship with her mother-in-law in which praise was also a problem.
The “stereotypical housewife” praised her daughter-in-law for domestic things “as a way of telling me that was my job.” Apter would bristle on receiving compliments on her cooking or laundry. “She couldn’t understand why I was taking offence, when she was trying to be nice.”
Familiar interactions like these have provided subject matter for Apter’s books in which she examines the psychology of social and family interactions, providing insight into the difficult patterns that we get into and help in turning those relationships around. Her latest, Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life, explores the essential nature of all three factors in our lives.
I pride myself on being non-judgmental, I tell her. She points out that this is profoundly misjudged. “We can’t be non-judgmental, we’re not built to do that.” Our brains are always making judgments, weighing all kinds of data. “Who is trustworthy, who is co operative, who to love - it’s something we judge automatically.”
Praise and blame are the ways we convey our judgments, and from birth they shape our sense of self. As a newborn baby, writes Apter: “Totally dependent on others, with an impulse to form loving attachment to those who respond to us, we rapidly learn the value of others’ praise. We also learn to fear the terrifying consequences of blame.”
Is there ever such a thing as too much praise? It all depends what you are praising, she says. “ It used to be thought that a steady diet of praise would lift a child’s self esteem, but now we realise we need to praise effort and consistency rather than intelligence and talent.”
She includes case studies of children “confused and irritated” by unfocused and overblown praise, and points out how praise can be used to shape the recipient into what the praiser wants them to be. “Unsatisfactory praise is like bad sex,” she writes, “the words are associated with pleasure and arouse expectation but somehow they let you down. Good praise on the other hand, makes the pulse rush, expands hope and warms us with esteem.”
As for blame, it is fine to tell off a child when they do something wrong, but again, “always criticise the action - ‘it was a bad thing to do’ - not the nature of the child.” Gossip, she says “is the forum in which we learn what is acceptable and what is not.” She covers friendships, love and work relationships and, most pressingly, the internet.
“People are extraordinarily skilled at refining and flexing judgments in light of new evidence,” writes Apter, but social media is “a new force that is skewing our judgement meter. It increases the speed of our judgments but at the same time reduces reliability. It thrives on low-level information, makes good and complex information particularly difficult to process and diminishes the likelihood that we will gather new evidence.” We need social literacy classes, she says, to understand the effect that mass judgment has on us, both in skewing our need for mass approval and remembering to check the facts when blame is apportioned.
Apter’s interests were formed by her family, she says, starting with her mother who “had a very strong sense that her children needed her control in order to navigate this dangerous world.” She grew up in Chicago where her father was a psychotherapist and her mother an opthamologist who had battled a “very sexist environment” as the only female medical student when she was at university.
In Jewish families generally, there’s an expected pattern that the “emotional temperature will be high” she says, especially when compared to a English Protestant families which “tend to be reserved, polite and try to be tactful,” although she adds that she’s found these assumptions “not as accurate as I had thought.” Difficult Mothers drew on her relationship with her own mother, to examine many kinds of problematic mother figues; in What Do You Want from Me? she turned her gaze to in-laws.
Her own Jewish identity changed in the UK, she says. In America there was an “immediate warmth and interest” when she met other Jews, “they knew something about me.” This wasn’t the case in the UK, which “took me aback.” She found some Canadian neighbours who introduced her to a synagogue and invited her to seders, but says it was difficult to realise that the innate link was national rather than religious, and she never became active in the local Jewish community.
At 69 she has retired as a Fellow of Newnham College, and is enjoying writing and being a grandmother, keeping a semi-professional eye on the inter-generational differences in child-rearing and expectations that role throws up. Having Terri Apter in your family must sometimes be a little unsettling, I suspect, although always illuminating.
“I think my children have expressed disappointment that they didn’t have more engagement with Judaism,” she muses, adding that being Jewish and “not feeling that you have been a good Jew” is an “uneasy legacy.”
This feels like a rather sad note on which to end our conversation, so I hasten to praise the way her books tackle subjects of great interest to Jewish people. She’s pleased, I think — “It’s good if I can help people with their Jewish emotional culture!”
Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life is published by WW Norton