There is always a certain kind of behavior that may slot parents down as unpopular or ‘unliked’. Most parents do have a tendency to spill the glory (seldom the gore) about their kids, to an extent that it can come across as unpleasant, annoying or sometimes even obnoxious to others who didn’t sign up for this when they decided to include themselves in your social media. There is a Yiddish word for it, “kvelling”. It’s when a person is bursting with pride or pleasure. For want of a better word, we call it boasting or bragging.
While there is a line people draw at bragging about themselves, there seem to be no holds barred while talking about their children. When you’re a parent, you’re bound to be fascinated with each and every achievement of your child, whether it’s eating on his own, using the pot for the first time as a toddler, or being a carrot at that fancy dress competition. Every move a child makes for the first several years of his or her life is celebrated with applause, pride and yes, updates on social media to make the achievement all the more official.
I often wished that my parents bragged a little bit about me when I was a child, given that I was an accomplished one by conventional standards, but they didn’t. Perhaps they didn’t want others to feel left out, or maybe they just didn’t think it was nice, but they didn’t. I still don’t know if it was right or wrong.
“Parenting is tough enough,” Bruce Feiler wrote a few years ago in the New York Times, “can’t you take a victory lap every now and then?”
Sure you can. It’s okay to leave your bragometer on every once in a while as long as you follow certain guidelines:
1. Make it about effort, not about accomplishment
It’s one thing to say your kid loves reading and quite another to say that she reads books meant for eight year-olds at five. Of course you can praise your child’s ability to read books and read them fast, don’t take it to the next level by quantifying it and saying he finishes reading all the library books by the time you reach home. When Re was a toddler, I used to constantly cancel out parents in my head who said their child could speak 12-word sentences. Not cool.
2. Make it about your good fortune and not about your parenting skills
Most of the time, bragging about your child is a backhanded compliment to yourself. When parents brag, they want you to notice their amazing parenting skills and not their child’s natural abilities. “See, I made this,” they seem to say.
As if it was all your doing and the child had little to do with it. But the truth is that his/her awesomeness is sheer luck anyway and has little to do with you or your parenting skills. I have seen many nice parents with obnoxious children and several obnoxious adults with really nice kids.
- Do not belittle when you brag.
You may not realize this, but bragging about your child sometimes undermines the abilities of another child who is still trying but hasn’t got to that stage of accomplishment. But you are obviously too busy basking in your own gene pool to notice this.
Case in point: I told a friend how Re, at age 4 wasn’t keen to learn Tamil at all, despite my mother and I making efforts to speak in it. To which she bragged about how her child is one part A and one part B and one part C and one part D (the letters referring to the respective native languages of her grandparents) and how, as a result, she said every word in four different languages at 11 months.
Or friend A who, when I told her how Re hated writing at age five even though every other child in his class enjoyed it, said to me that her son not only wrote long word sentences but also had started reading by the time he was four. Not cool.
- Cancel out your brag quickly with some un-brags.
This means say something your child is struggling with soon after announcing that she won a Math Olympiad. But for some braggy parents, even the counter-negative might end up being boastful. These are the humblebrags. Like, “Her room is so messy, I might find a Calculus breakthrough in it someday”! #mygirlisamathgenius
While I do love talking about Re as well, I think I try to do it in a self-deprecatory manner or just in awe. Most of the times, Re reminds me of the things I am not, and therefore the conversations I share about him are as reflective of my conditioning than they are about his thought process. If any of those came across as bragging, I am guilty too.
- Get over it quickly
If you have to brag, do it quickly and get out. Don’t divide your twitter feed into 20 parts, each part holding forth on some sterling quality of your child. Or a series of Facebook posts with different trophies or milestones highlighted. Whatever you do, do not hashtag your brags.
- Boasting is not necessarily proclaiming love:
Your child may be extremely smart, wise beyond his years, and achingly cute. She may be as close to perfection as you can imagine. Your love for her may be greater than anything else you feel, but that doesn’t give you the license to boast about each and every milestone. Of course you can do it with your spouse or with your parents, but before you put it out there, remember that boasting is not love. It does not do for the child what unconditional love does.
- Time it well
When you are in a forum where everyone is talking about how much trouble they are having getting their kids to eat well, it may not be the best time to proclaim that your cherub is an ace eater and has been eating on his own since eight months. Not cool.
- Do not make it about report cards
Report cards are weird things, and people’s perception of them is also rather skewed and however cool a parent you may be, you would still prefer As over Cs. So avoid paper boasts, which is what I call them.
- Listen to the ones who don’t brag
The next time you are at a brunch and the talk turns to what your kids are doing and the bragging begins, notice that mother who is sitting quietly, not saying much about her kids. May be she is struggling with something. But she loves her son or daughter just as much as you do.
- Think about how would someone who is reading your outpourings (and is not necessarily in love with your child) would perceive it.
I usually follow a simple rule of asking myself three questions:
- Is it truly exceptional?
- Might it cause others to feel left out?
- Does it have entertainment value?
My focus is usually on no. 3 and so far, so good.
(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 5th October, 2015)