This is the time of year, as high school seniors receive letters from colleges, as our elementary school athletes finish up their winter sports seasons and begin training for the spring festivities, or our students win recognition in the form of scholarships and awards. When our kids accomplish something, it can be easy to tell them how proud we are of them or share with our friends how proud we are of our children’s latest achievements. I know this makes sense to us. Our kids do great things and we want them to know how we feel, and how happy we are for them. In some cases we want our neighbors or relatives to know how great our children are (in turn) how great we are as parents and that we have raised such marvelous wonders.
The reason we boast and praise our children is not nearly as important as the answer to this question. What do you say to your child when she misses the mark? What do you say when he falls a bit short? What do you say when she fails or gets rejected?
“Oh, that’s ok, honey, you were accepted to the other two colleges.” Or you may say, “Don’t cry, I know you tried.” Do you ever tell your child, “You dropped the ball in center-field, I am so proud of you.” No.
Children interpret this attempt to make them feel better, as a lack of pride in them, as they are right now (warts, mistakes, foul-ups, rejections and all.) And since you are not proud of them, they can often interpret this as disappointment.
Here is an example and a conversation to illustrate.
On Friday, my daughter received her acceptance letter from Columbia University in New York. After hours and hours of research to find a program in her field of interest, she applied to graduate school a few months earlier. She was elated and couldn’t wait to share the news with us. My husband and I were on the phone with her when she opened the letter. Zoe and my husband screamed and shouted and hooted and hollered. When everyone settled down, the following conversation ensued:
Zoe: So mom, are you proud of me?
Me: Zoe, I am so happy that you got into the program you wanted and I am impressed with how hard you worked for 4 years to make this dream come true. I
am inspired to work hard for my own dreams and I am thrilled that you will be living in New York.
Zoe: Mom, come on, say it – say you are proud of me.
Iain: I am proud of you Zoe.
Zoe: I know, but I want to hear Mom say it. She never uses the “P” word. She is the only mom I know who is more comfortable dropping the “f” bomb than using the “P” word.
Me: I’m sorry Zoe, but if I tell you I am proud of you now, the next time something like this happens and say you don’t get in, you might think I am disappointed in you, and that just wouldn’t be true. See, the thing is, if a parent says they are proud, then that leaves room for a parent to be disappointed and I can assure you Zoe, that I am never, ever, disappointed in you. The best I can give you my darling is this – perhaps on my death bed, as I am saying goodbye, I will look at you and say – I am proud to be your mother.
She fell silent. I heard her take a big gulp of air and she closed our conversation.
Consider your words carefully and consider the message those words carry with them when delivered on young ears with impressionable minds.