Be The Propaganda You Wish To See

Last Monday was March 4, according to my grandmother, the most commanding day of the year. (March Forth!). I am guessing other people’s grandmothers must have used the same line because last Monday there were a lot of hits on the post I did nine years earlier called The Most Commanding Day of the Year.

My grandmother had a lot of funny turns of phrase that she used to entertain and trick her grandkids. She was also very proud of being Irish (though she was second or third generation in the U.S.).

Now I have more German than Irish in my background from grandparents on both sides, but I didn’t realize that until I was much older thanks to my grandmother’s constant propaganda about how wonderful the Irish are and how wonderful it was that we were Irish.

I never recognized how much influence that had over my life. I have never been rabidly Irish, even on St. Patrick’s Day. However, two weeks ago I was listening to a Deutsche Welle report on how successful Ireland has been at achieving their goals while holding the European Union presidency. I felt a this sense of pride in Ireland’s accomplishment even though I only have a vague idea of how the EU presidency works.

I have generally been cynical about the effectiveness of constantly telling kids that they are smartest and most talented because reality tends to rear its ugly head a vast majority of the time and they realize they don’t measure up to the billing.

My recognition of my reaction to the Ireland story gave me some insight into the power of reinforcing ideas for kids as the grow up. It has started me thinking about the long term benefits of encouragement absent of specific value, consistently telling kids they can be artistic and creative without necessarily saying they are the most creative in class or specifying what being a successful artist looks like.

I know this sounds very vague and touchie-feelie and I will be the first to admit that I have no data to back this up.

I do know that many experts encourage parents to praise the process rather than the result– praise the hard work that went into preparing for a test rather than telling a kid they are smart for scoring so high. That way there is a sense of cause and effect behind a failure and how it might be resolved rather than a total sense of loss and bewilderment when the natural ability you have been told you possess seems to have abandoned you.

The idea that exposing and involving kids in the arts at a young age is important is barely news to any of us. My purpose in writing this post is to point to just how subtle and pervasive cultivating part a person’s identity as a child can be.

In terms of my Irishness, my grandmother’s influence was reinforced by the fact I lived an hour outside of NYC, one of the great bastions of Irish identity in the U.S.

But though my grandmother has been dead over a decade now, my immediate family, uncles and cousins inevitably bond over obscure “holidays” like March 4. My mother and I talked about it on March 3 and though neither of us spoke to my sister, she emailed out about the most commanding day of the year to my siblings and cousins on March 4.

If you think about it, there is probably some equally peculiar element from your own upbringing that influences you to this day. Considering all this, it may be helpful over the long term to include phrases like “what do you like to do?,” “what have you created lately?” in every day conversation with kids of all ages.

(By the way, I haven’t appropriated the saying commonly attributed to Gandhi for my title. There is no evidence he said it. But as with all evidence debunking misattributions, the research is pretty interesting.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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