Being a middle-class child is a lot like being a medieval dictator: you're surrounded by people who tell you everything you do is absolutely fantastic. Wipe your own backside and you get a round of applause and a sticker.
Kids' lives are soaked in praise. The worse they are at something, the more you praise them for it. Mike, who's four and will start school next month, is no good at drawing, mainly because he won't sit still long enough to hold a crayon in his hand.
His sister, by contrast, has spent most of her six years colouring things in, so she's a whole lot better at drawing than Mike. He looks at her and decides, reasonably enough, that by comparison he's useless, and why would you want to be doing anything you're useless at?
So yesterday, he comes in with a picture which he says is of me and him. Really, it's just a crooked line, some dots and a scribble of blue crayon. Can't have taken him more than 20 seconds. But because I want him to get used to sitting still and concentrating on stuff before school gets him, I went into an apoplexy of praise.
I danced around the room with his picture, pinned it to the fridge door and made a pretend call to the National Gallery asking them if they'd like to put in a bid for it. The two Jehovah's Witnesses who called to the house this morning were dragged in to have a look. They had no problem lying through their teeth either.
It's all about self-confidence. These days, getting self-confidence into a child is easily as important as getting fruit and vegetables into them. Knocking a kid's self-confidence is worse than hitting them. It's such a remarkable turnaround from when we were kids. I remember in a friend's house when I was eight or nine, there were no poorly executed pictures on the fridge door, but there was a ceramic fridge magnet inscribed with this: "I is the least important letter."
In the secondary school I went to in the 1980s, it was all about respect. Nobody talked about self-confidence.
I know it's an Irish thing. I was in a burger place recently, on my own with the three of them. We were busy stuffing our faces and this woman who'd been sitting opposite us comes up and says to me: "You've three of the most well-behaved children there."
Now. I'd made up my mind the last time someone said something nice about my kids that I would accept the compliment. I would loudly agree with them, and say: "Yes, these are wonderful little people and I'm very proud of them." But did I do this? Nope. I'm Irish. I made a big stupid face and said something like: "Yerra, they're only quiet now because they're eating."
Know what the deadliest of the seven deadly sins is? Pride. St Thomas Aquinas said that pride lay at the root of every other sin. But forget all that. These days, being proud of yourself is the cardinal virtue.
My daughter got her first report card at the start of the summer. Third category from the top was 'self- confidence'. There was a big fat tick in the 'very good' box. We are breeding the guilt, begrudgery and persecution complexes out of the population. And it's great. I remember telling a friend who'd come back from a world trip that he seemed much more self-confident. He didn't take it well; he thought I was saying he was a cocky bastard.
But! The problem is that we're kind of devaluing praise. At some point, these kids are going to find out that they're not great at absolutely everything, and at some point the applause for wiping your own backside will die away. How will they deal with the silence? Would it be better to prepare them in some way for the horrible truth that there are way more losers than winners?
Maybe not. Maybe having confidence is an end in itself. We all know plenty of people who think they're brilliant at everything when they aren't. But they still get the promotions, the skinny wives and guitar-shaped swimming pools. Maybe confidence is all that matters, and actually being good at stuff is for the birds.
Thomas Aquinas can kiss my ass.