How to Handle a Bragging Parent
Years ago when one of my children was struggling in life, I ran into an acquaintance in the produce department at Whole Foods. We hadn’t seen each other in years and standing between the organic kale and heirloom apples, she regaled me with stories of her children’s successes: straight A’s, football quarterback, play productions, voted most popular, prestigious scholarships, etc. With each accomplishment, I felt my chest tighten: sadness for my struggling child, anxiety that maybe my parenting was somehow lacking, and even resentment for her seemingly effortless life. Today, my child is doing great, and I could be the one crowing in the grocery store aisle, but I’ve never forgotten how defeated I felt that day.
“Bragging about yourself is well known by everybody — adults and children — to be inappropriate and socially obnoxious,” said Dr. Julie Powell Thomas, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and founding partner at Tulsa Family Development Center. “But there is an element of denial in this social faux pas when talking about your kids. People think if they talk about the accomplishments of their children it is praise, not bragging. This denial exists even in people who are socially sophisticated. But when you brag about your own child, you are really bragging about yourself.”
Dr. Powell Thomas encourages parents to do a self-check before plunging in to a recitation of their child’s honors. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this coming from a good place in me?’ Denial is not recognizing your own agenda,” she said. “There can be agendas in your head that offset the truth. Try to be honest with yourself.”
One of those agendas could be your own feelings of insecurity. Dr. Powell Thomas said that often parents who feel insecure themselves will brag about their children. Or, as New York Times columnist, Brian Feiler put it in his article, “A Truce in the Bragging Wars,” “Most parents are quietly petrified that we don’t know what we’re doing, or worse, that we’re doing something ruinously wrong…Bragging about our children is a way of relieving our anxiety that we’re not total losers as parents.”
“Studies show that bragging makes us feel good,” Dr. Powell Thomas said. “The denial is that if we brag about our children, we are not really doing it.” So we can get that hit of good feelings bragging about our kids when we’d never brag about ourselves.
“It’s normal and natural to feel proud of your kids,” she added. “A big part of our sense of accomplishment as parents is wrapped up in doing a good job.” Therefore, the urge can be strong to share our children’s accomplishments with others. “But you shouldn’t do it,” she said.
And, according to her, here’s why:
It makes other people feel bad. It can be hurtful. Especially if the other person’s children aren’t doing well or have developmental issues.
It sets a negative example for children. They pick that up as a measuring stick. There are negative effects of praising children too much. Praise is good, but you want to praise your children for doing what is respectful and responsible, for being hard workers, for example. The focus needs to be on effort more than outcome.
Teens and tweens hate it. They want privacy. They think it’s obnoxious if they hear their parents talking about them.
It puts undue pressure on children.
Okay, the fact is there are people who will wholeheartedly share your enthusiasm when you brag about your children. But, according to Dr. Powell Thomas, it is important to pick your audience with care. “Another mom is not your best audience. A spouse or a grandparent is,” she said. The only other exception is a friend with whom you have a close, sincere relationship. But even with your closest friends, take care. “In relationships where there is trust, warmth and goodwill we should share not just our high moments as parents but also our struggles. If we only talk about our child’s accomplishments then we eliminate a whole venue of support which is hugely important in raising kids,” she said.
So what do you do if you run into Mrs. Brags-A-Lot in Whole Foods? “Hearing another parent brag can trigger a competitive urge in us,” Dr. Powell Thomas said. “First, check your own feelings when another parent brags. How does it make you feel? Less competent? Do you want to defend your child by throwing out his or her accomplishments?”
Once you are in tune with your own emotions, STOP. “Don’t energize bragging by repeating the same behavior,” she said. “Don’t reinforce other people by doing what you don’t like. Just say, ‘Oh great!’ and move on to something else. Some parents are naturals. They are humble about what they communicate. You will notice they won’t tell you a lot.”
As New York Times columnist, Brian Feiler, wrote “Approach bragging as your child approaches cough syrup: If you must do it, get it over quickly!”
Finally Dr. Powell Thomas advised parents who have children who are struggling to remember the following advice: “When a parent says something about their own kids’ accomplishments, it does not communicate anything about your child. It’s all about that parent and where they are coming from.”