Bragging about your kids: When is it cool and when not

bragging about your kids

 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

  1. Is it truly exceptional?
  2. Might it cause others to feel left out?
  3. 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)

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Are we praising our children too much?

This is an era of showcase parenting.

My child writes poetry at eight.”

Mine reads biographies at ten.”

Mine learnt how to play the piano at six.”

When Re was a baby, I did the rounds of all the parks in my neighbourhood. I always met fellow moms with their babies. They always compared notes on whether their child was turning, sitting, teething, crawling, standing, walking, or talking as well as the others. It always made me tired.

So is he walking?’ one would ask me about Re.

Not really, but with support, yes…’ I would say.

Is he talking?’ they would ask.

Not yet, but he is just fifteen months,’ I would say, suddenly wanting to be some place else.

Mine started talking at eleven months!’ one would declare.

And then I would find another park. Soon, I ran out of parks.

Now I am older and wiser, and also a teacher, so I grin and bear it. I meet parents of budding pianists, chess-players, architects, writers and poets in the making, but what strikes me is that parents these days are somewhat too generous with praise. The child doodles a bit and he is an artist. The child strums a few chords and she is a musician. The child writes a tree poem and she is a naturalist. The child rearranges things and he is a designer. And most adulatory things about the child are said in front of the child. Call me old-fashioned, but I find this weird.

When I was a little girl, my only claim to fame was that I did exams well and wrote, kinda well and was somewhat good at dance. I waited and waited for my parents to acknowledge one or more of these traits whenever people came over. They never did. I am grateful to them now, because that somehow kept me going. It made me feel that I was still on a journey and there was a long way to go.

I think children these days get points just for showing up. Adults are constantly praising kids for things that a generation ago would not have merited notice, such as showing up on time or remembering to do homework. I don’t know about you, but I find it patronizing. And the real world doesn’t praise you for brushing your teeth in the morning.

Carol Dweck in her book Mindsets: the new psychology of success talks about the merit in praising effort, not outcome and believes it’s the only way to produce resilient kids. She says, “I think the way we praise, the way we talk to kids, all of these messages are conveying a value system. So when we say to someone ‘Oh, you’re so smart’, it says that’s what we value. When we say to a kid ‘Oh, you did that so quickly, you’re really good at it’, we’re telling them doing something quickly and easily means you’re good at it, and if you have to work hard you aren’t good at it. Or if we say ‘Wow, I’m really impressed’, and they haven’t really worked hard, then we’re saying that’s what impresses me – that if you make a mistake, if you struggle, it doesn’t impress me.

She recommends that parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?’

The problem with praise, or at least praise aimed at performance, is that when children are praised all the time, they also feel judged all the time. Children also tend to know when they have really accomplished something and when they have not. They soon catch on if everything they do is “fantastic” or “brilliant”. They can become apathetic to praise, since they hear it all the time.

Praise is also like crack for kids- they can start to require higher and higher doses of it and may feel that there is something wrong with them when they aren’t being showered with kudos. If you shower praise all the time, you will soon run out of superlatives and be unable to tell real achievement from the usual norm.

What I also find is that a whole generation of parents are overcompensating for the lack of time with their kids with extreme praise. Yet time and real engagement are always more meaningful. As Zadie Smith would say, “Time is how you spend your love.” “You’re terrific” is not.

Yes, it’s easy to swing into the superlative every time your child makes you a birthday card or says something that smacks of brilliance. We have all been there. So what do you then tell a child when they do something impressive? Just say what you saw. “Oh! You’ve drawn a house with a rainbow window,” I told Re the other day. I am learning too.

Because every blob of clay is not a Damian Ortega, neither is every splotch of colour a Kandinsky or every recital Oscar worthy. If we are telling our kids that, we are just creating a generation of praise junkies.

 
This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 1st September, 2014