Every parent has the right to be proud of his or her children. Each little one is unique and comes with a combination of interests, abilities, and learned skills. It’s exciting to watch them as they grow, finding what sparks them. And who knows? One of them may develop green fuel or a cure for cancer or a way to feed the world. One of them may become a famous singer or a movie actor or the CEO of her own company.
Along the way, though, there are several ways in which we can subtly undermine both our own children and our friends’ children. I am never clear about whether this twisted form of pride comes from an actual belief that we are better than others or from the equally faulty fear that we are not as good as others. Either way, it isn’t good. Some of the mistakes we make in how we view our children’s accomplishments stem from those attitudes.
The first mistake is being certain now that this is what our children will do then. Over and over, I hear parents talking about what their kids will be doing five or even ten years in the future. Not what they might do; what they will do. Sometimes this is based on a child’s expressed desire, such as what he or she wants to be as an adult. Of course, not all of those dreams are realistic–my daughter’s friend said the other day that she plans to be a princess. Most kids say those sorts of things. But the truth is, very few children understand what it would take to make that a reality; they are expressing mostly admiration for people or professions. When we latch onto that, we take some of the imagination and play away from our children.
At other times, the might-bes come from what we want our children to do. It’s more than just wanting them to have opportunities to experience life. It’s a drive to push them in a particular direction. We remember how much we enjoyed an activity in our own youth, and we want the same for our kids. Our children may indeed have similar interests, but they are not us–we can’t force them to be what we want, no matter how much we may want to.
The problem with both of the above is that it may not match reality. A child may want to be a concert pianist, but if she can’t tell one note from another, that’s pretty unlikely. Now, I’m not suggesting that she ought to quit piano lessons or that you should tell her she stinks. Just that you probably shouldn’t try to find a way to turn her into a concert pianist.
Which brings me to another point at which unhealthy pride in our children can be expressed. We don’t always have a realistic view of their abilities. That comes out in two ways. First, we inflate our children’s skills. Second, we diminish the abilities of other children.
I’ve been on the receiving end of both recently, and I was very glad that neither of my kids was there to hear.
I’ve also been on the “giving” end. My son was an early reader. I taught him how to read, he didn’t learn on his own as some kids do. He was interested, so we worked on it. He now reads very, very well. When he first started, I was very proud of him and I wanted to tell the world he could read. I quickly stopped doing that, because I got responses ranging from outright disbelief to informing me that it wasn’t a sign of his later intelligence. I even made the mistake of publicly asking for help selecting books for him–that must have made people feel like I was bragging. Although I really did want the information, I am sure part of me was trying to find a “nicer” way to boast.
I realized what I had done only after someone else did a similar kind of bragging-that’s-supposed-to-look-like-it’s-not. I was embarrassed for the person. I don’t believe she knew how it came across. But I did, because I’ve done it too. And it’s hard to fight the urge to celebrate our dear ones’ accomplishments.
The other form of implying our children are better is absolutely not anything I have ever done. It was one of the most hurtful experiences I’ve ever had.
My kids both take dance classes. They enjoy it. I have no notions that they will be professional dancers. I really don’t care. I just want them to have fun, get some exercise, and spend time with other kids their ages. My son has been dancing for almost 5 years. He is in class with kids who have been there a year longer. He does keep up, but the reality is, he’s a year behind them on learning. It takes time to catch up. As the dance year comes to a close, we’re allowed to watch the kids perform the dances they are working on for the recital. As we were watching, one of the parents leaned in to me and whispered that my son was making a lot of mistakes. In that moment, I truly wanted to reach out and smack her (I didn’t). After I recovered, I considered telling her that her kid wasn’t so great (I didn’t do that, either). I thought about defending J, reminding her that he’s still young and that he did a pretty good job, under the circumstances (nope, didn’t do that). In the end, I decided that it just wasn’t worth my time.
As they grow, I hope that I can learn how to practice being proud of them without being prideful. One acquaintance summed it up perfectly. His children are adults, very accomplished and doing great things. I suggested he must be very proud of them. He said yes, but that they are adults now, and they are doing their own things. That is what I want–to give my kids the tools they need to find their own things.