A couple of weeks ago, my family and I squeezed a last-minute vacation out of summer, staying near the beach at a family-friendly suite-style hotel.
As we finished our buffet breakfast outside in the pleasant August breeze and chatted about whether the rubbery omelet, the chunky lukewarm sausage gravy, or the dishwater coffee was the best of the worst food we had just eaten, a nearby mother of two small girls launched a chirpy, one-sided monologue onto her angel children, listing each of their many, many positive attributes and skill sets. “You are a perfect swimmer.” “Your dress is pretty.” “Your hair is very blonde.” When her deluge of compliments dried up, the eldest one demanded:
“I WANT A SNACK.”
The mom ignored her, and cooed in reply,
“You’re growing so much. I’m so proud of you.”
I snorted abruptly. Audibly. My 14-year-old son stared at me, eyes wide in shock and amusement. Usually I keep my rudeness in check.
Thankfully, he was the only one who noticed, and I escaped a confrontation.
I am a parent. A mother. A spit-cleaning, minivan-driving, kid’s picture on a button-wearing MOMMY of two practically perfect children.
Children who excel in school, behave at and away from home, enjoy various extracurricular activities, clean their rooms and empty the dishwasher, have great hair and beautiful eyes, and give me many opportunities to note their accomplishments, no matter how effortful or naturally-occurring.
I love watching them grow into the people they are becoming. I have spent the last decade-plus happy and relieved at the passing of certain milestones (Sleeping through the night. Shoe tying. Finishing elementary school. Passing geometry. Noticing crumbs on the counter.)
They’re growing. They’re maturing. They have conversations with other adults who aren’t their parents. They laugh and joke with friends, make plans, and do certain things with minimal supervision. They do laundry and save money to buy stuff they want. They are supposed to do these things. They have been taught to do these things. The world expects them to do these things.
Pride has nothing to do with these things.
Pride is not a natural feeling for me. My personal horn-tooting is infrequent; there will always be someone who has done the same and better. I keep my head in the game, do my work, and sometimes I am the first and the best. I am aware that someone may surpass me immediately. Having confidence and cultivating my abilities is more important than trying to win every race. I don’t dwell on my accomplishments long enough to feel pride, much less announce it. I’m the same way with my children.
I was raised during a time when normal parents didn’t shout their children’s praises from every mountaintop. Bragging was considered déclassé, unnecessary – everybody’s proud of their own kid for something. This may have led me on a bumpy road to self-confidence; I lived most of my life without a naturally-occurring tendency to chuck myself on the chin each morning with a “you got this, girl.” But I’m an adult, and I’m over it.
When you have kids, you have the chance to do things differently. We all want our kids to feel special; the current cultural norm is to make sure they do. I want mine to know they are wholly able to do many things well, but I’m careful to avoid creating two more narcissists for the world to deal with. It’s a tough balance.
Sometimes I wonder if my expectations are too high. I certainly don’t want to teach my children that they are never good enough, thanks to my stingy declarations of pride. Should I practice pride more? This is the way people talk to and about their children, if I am to use this ordinary mother on the parking lot porch of a suburban hotel as an example. Is there a difference between pride and appreciation? I love my kids and value their accomplishments, but I can’t say I’m full of pride for every good thing they do. They haven’t overcome extraordinary obstacles, achieved superhuman feats, or cured cancer. Can I just say “I’m happy with who they are today”? Or am I just a big old meanie?
I think of that little girl at the hotel. The girl whose mother ignored her and listened only to her own pride, the girl who was deprived of a lesson on manners because her mother felt it was more important to express how her child makes her feel. I consider the pressure a kid faces when raised to believe that her very being brings pride to her parents. I think about the implications of pride when there’s no rationale behind it. What happens to kids who are conditioned to believe that they bring pride to their parents just for existing – what happens when they screw up? More than wanting to admonish the mother, I want to hug that child. And then I realize: that little girl will probably turn out okay. Her mother loves her; this is how she shows it.
Life is a social experiment, and we are all testing different theories. Like everyone else, I do what makes sense for the people in my family, taking into consideration individual tendencies and past research, and tweaking parameters when needed. It’s perpetual trial and error. I might not shower my children with declarations of pride on the regular, but they do know that I love them.
The other day, my daughter went to the doctor for a physical. She had grown almost four inches in the last year. “Wow!” exclaimed the pediatrician. “You’ve grown so much!”
I didn’t say it, but it was on the tip of my tongue. My daughter looked at me, and we shared a smile, our new family joke unspoken. I may not be proud of her for growing, but she knows love. They both do.