Parenting is not a competitive sport. It isn’t about beating the team next door or across the street. It isn’t about having today’s most impressive brag status on social media. Parenting is about helping children to become reasonably well adjusted, independent, caring adults who walk through the world confident in who they are – strengths and weaknesses, good times and bad – and able to survive it all. Parenting is about your children who are someone today. Today, your children have gifts and challenges. Today, your children are trying to figure it all out.
As someone who talks often with parents in multiple settings, I am struck by the competitive nature of the landscape. Parents of preschoolers can tell me who among the other children are reading already or excelling at a sport or seem to be ahead of their own children in a variety of developmental tasks. Parents of high schoolers are inordinately informed about who is applying to what college and what other children’s standardized test scores were in comparison to their own children. When I lecture, people have asked me if I think social media started this “we must do better than the other team (I mean family)” attitude. While being able to see everyone’s life including what they ate for dinner has certainly fed the competitiveness, I blame the bumper stickers.
It has been years since the first “My child is an honor student at….” bumper sticker. The publicizing of children’s accomplishments as a means of collective pride has only increased. Social media is fraught with information about the wonders of other families and people seem to absorb that information as a source of competitiveness and anxiety. We forget that we are only seeing a snippet of people’s lives and everyone experiences the spectrum of achievement and defeat. It is having an interesting (and by that I mean detrimental) impact on sense of self.
Before you put the bumper sticker on your car or word your social media post, consider this:
- Children need to learn to be proud of themselves in the moment without fear of falling from grace. If your child is an honor student or star athlete or accomplishes some other feat, that’s wonderful. Accomplishments should be acknowledged and celebrated. They should help children to feel pride and to know that this is a good feeling – one that they would like to experience again. It is possible, however, that next marking period will be really tough or the extra-curricular activity will become more difficult. If the child is the source of bumper sticker pride so the whole family can ride around feeling great, what happens if they slip or make a mistake? When they make mistakes, they learn valuable lessons. One of those lessons doesn’t need to be “now we can’t be proud of you publicly.” They should learn that we all make mistakes, make poor decisions and slip from grace but you can recuperate.
- Children need to develop a sense of themselves apart from their parents’ sense of self-worth. It is lovely to be proud of your children. It feels great when children act in a way that is how we hope and it is important for children to know they’ve hit the “grow up to be this way” mark. It is also detrimental for children to believe that their parents’ sense of self is all wrapped up in their sons’ or daughters’ accomplishments. My children’s accomplishments are theirs and I want them to own them. I am happy to purchase a t-shirt for a child that says, “I am an honor student at…” because it is that child acknowledging their own hard work. I once said something along these lines to a group of parents at a talk I was conducting. A parent said, “But I did help my children accomplish their grades…” Yes, that is your job as a parent. You are supposed to be a helper. Please recognize that your children have to accept that help and that is their accomplishment. Children can actually refuse and reject your efforts by doing things like not handing in the work or not answering questions on the test.
- In recent years, the bumper stickers have out-shined by the social media status. Before posting a “We are so proud of little Johnny or Janey…” status on social media, please ask their permission. It is very possible that they would like some privacy or find your exuberance embarrassing. Children should get to choose what will be put in the world for public consumption. I do use social media and I always ask my children before posting about them. Sometimes, they have said yes and, sometimes, they have said not to post. I’m really talking about their lives and not mine so I respect that. I have my own accomplishments that I can post if I so choose.
Nothing is better than knowing your parents are proud of you. Tell your children when you are proud but try not to make it a public relations event for your whole family unless they approve. How can children learn to own their worth if we keep taking it and comparing it to others?
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