What bragging about your kids really says about you

When parents skite about their kids’ achievements, is it really about the child?

By Deborah Hill Cone
So proud! Cadence got the lead in the school play – again. And gosh, Juniper is such a social butterfly, and topped the school in running. Arlo's band is a finalist of the battle of the bands… oops, zoned out for a minute there.
You know these parents? Or maybe seen them on Facebook? (Clue: their kids kick a ball better than Beckham and paint better than Michelangelo).
In the past these proud parents have pushed all my worst sneery and snarky buttons. (Shameful Inner Monologue: Just because they're head boy or head girl now doesn't mean in 20 years they won't end up in a dead-end job.)
But I don't want to be that mean-spirited person any more. Why do I get triggered by braggy monologues and other people's perfect offspring? After all, don't we need those bright sparks to lead the next generation and solve plastic in the oceans? Children need as much love as they can get. How can I get over my unseemly derision?
My issue is that sometimes boasting is not actually about the kids; it's a kind of stealthy self-flattery by the parents. That's my DNA right there! But so what? If the parents feel good giving themselves high fives for producing such gifted progeny, surely it shouldn't matter.
However, we can all admit it is a little naff. Far cooler is the English eccentrics' instinct for self deprecation. "Tuppy is mentally negligible but makes a stonking rice pudding" or "Stilton isn't going to win the Nobel prize, bless him, but he's good with the hounds."
My own stoic parents thought it was character-building not to praise us – and perhaps on some level I am miffed that I never got that Little Lord Fauntleroy idealisation I see other parents giving to their children. It is painful to see others getting what you never got.
Or perhaps there's something deeper to do with maternal ambivalence? How can you always be loving to your children? Sometimes they frankly make me feel like giving them a good slap.
The need to suppress negative feelings about our children is so profound, that we overcompensate by being zealously positive, and spruiking them to all and sundry. Rather than the more honest: "Clovis has her moments – but she can be a right little sh*t sometimes".
The public praising of children could also be a tragic defence against our own mortality – I might be going grey but look, my progeny are going to run the freaking world. Job done. It's the natural way of the world. We should want our children to surpass us.
Yet not everyone does. There is a disturbing shadow of narcissism among some parents who put great store by the children's achievements. You can't help wondering if the achievements are for the child, or are they an extension of the parent's own unlived ambitions? I couldn't be a rock star but my kid's going to be Justin Timberlake.
Psychology Today narcissism specialist Preston Ni says children of narcissistic parents are not treated as human beings, but merely tools (objects even?) to be used for personal gain. Some children of narcissistic parents are objectified in the same manner, while others are taught to possess the same, forged superiority complex: "We're better than they are."
So I suppose it depends what you are praising your child for. Is it based on superficial, egotistical and material trappings, attained at the expense of one's humanity and connection? One becomes more 'superior' but becomes less human. That feels wrong.
But closer to home, am I snarky at the shiny, happy people because frankly, my own kids aren't likely to be prefects or win the cross country any time soon? When other people gloat about their achieving kids, it brings up my own anxieties about my kids, their futures, how they're even going to earn a crust. Admitting that is cringey and painful.
I am deeply proud of my kids too, but frequently for something other parents wouldn't even notice as an achievement: eating sandwiches with the crusts on or brushing their teeth with actual toothpaste or being brave enough to go in the car on the motorway. When you have kids like mine you have different kinds of star charts. And they may not be ones you'd put on Facebook.
But I think the main reason I struggle with parental gushing is because as a mother of two quirky kids (I don't like labels) I can't help feeling for the 'other' kid, the one that isn't in the spotlight.
I know one mum who posted about her amazing child's exam results. But when the next child sits the same exams: silence. I can't help feeling: how does it feel to be that second child?
But maybe I should brag about my kids' 'small' achievements; who cares what the neurotypicals think?
Because what I've noticed is that when parents of kids with special needs brag, it's different. They tend to be excited about improvement, not abilities. Often it's a way to boost other parents in similar situations; it's about connection, not showing off.
"My kid wore her leg braces all night!" writer Kathryn Hiveley boasted online. When I hear things like this, I am thrilled on the parent's behalf. Because the skiting is offered in a spirit of generosity – a recognition that, when others are in the midst of their own struggles, what they'll hear is 'You are not alone'. Hiveley hopes her comments about her kids show that whatever you are working towards, it's worth keeping on reaching.
After reading that, it made it easier for me to feel generous about other people's achieving kids. Big ups Cadence and Juniper and Arlo! Because we are all just reaching, whatever big (or little) thing we have achieved along the way. Try another sandwich with the crusts, and after that – broccoli. I'll shout to the skies about that.

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