When Boasting isn’t Bragging
“I’m worried about Devin,” my friend Nella confessed recently. We were sitting in my kitchen enjoying one of those quiet interludes that are so rare since we both became mothers. Our children were running wild in the yard, giving us a few minutes of solitude. “He comes home from school bragging all the time lately. ‘I spelled more words than anyone. I was the best when we were kicking the soccer ball. Nobody could run as fast as me. Look at this great picture I made. I’m a really good artist, aren’t I.’ He goes on and on. I want him to tell me about his day and about the things he is good at, but I don’t want him to be a bragger. I don’t want him putting himself above other people. I try telling him, but I’m not sure that is the right thing, because I don’t want him to stop talking to me, and I do want him to feel good about what he is learning.”
Devin is like Nella herself: a competent little guy, sturdy and smart. And very sensitive about other people’s feelings. Like her, he cares a lot about doing the right thing, and I felt sure he would take her responses to heart. I, myself, don’t worry at all about Devin becoming a self promoter. But I wasn’t particularly surprised by Nella’s concern, because questions about boasting or bragging have come up so many times over the years in my psychology practice, where I work with children and families.
Children come into the world celebrating their successes, and celebrating them loudly. They are excited, and they want other people to notice as they revel in their mastery and in their creations. Think how many times we hear, from the moment they can talk, “Look Mama, Look Daddy, Watch me, Did you see it?” or “Look what I made, Look at this one. And this one. . .”
Over time, they learn to keep their accomplishments to themselves, because –Nella is right about this—there is a high price to pay for being perceived as a bragger. Frequently, a child who other children believe to be bragging and gloating will be pushed to the margins socially.
There are at least two reasons for this. One is that other children who have internalized the “No Bragging” rule feel uncomfortable and even vicariously ashamed to have it broken. Secondly, we all, including children, like to feel good about ourselves and our own accomplishments. We don’t want to be around someone who makes us feel small, who makes us think less of ourselves. If I just got a hard earned ‘B’ on the test, I don’t want to hear about your perfect score. If I just succeeded in stacking twelve blocks, I don’t want to hear about your seventeen.
We especially hate having someone make us feel lesser if we think they are doing it intentionally. And children tend to assume intent even when there is none. If someone does something that hurts me, physically or emotionally, they must have foreseen and intended the harm. ‘He/she did it on purpose’ is a frequent howling refrain throughout the preschool and grade school years. So lauding your own accomplishments among your peers is risky.
But the problem I see in my psychology practice, is not one of people bragging too much. Instead, by the time many of us get to adulthood, we have learned the “No bragging” rule so well that we don’t pause to revel in our accomplishments, even alone or with a partner or friends. In fact, we don’t take time to relish them at all. Often our successes get brushed aside as we focus on the next milestone or worse, on the things we ‘should have’ done better.
It’s a problem because we need those accomplishments. We need them to be as weighty and substantial as they really are. We need them to hang over us in the way our dreams can hang over us – like some vague sense or mood at the edge of our consciousness as we go about the day’s tasks. Because if we are pushing ourselves hard, we are going to have a lot of failures. A lot. And it is the weight of the successes that give us the energy to keep trying, to keep hoping and persisting against the odds. They are our buffer against depression. They provide one of the foundations of our self-esteem: the sense that I have the power to accomplish what matters to me and, within my value system, what matters in the world.
Here is what I told Nella: Devin’s impulse to celebrate his successes is a gift, it is a treasure. It is something to be protected and nurtured. Right now, at age 7, he still has the ability to bask in his attainments, to say, “Wow, I am really something!. I am great! Being Devin Swiggett is one of the coolest, most awesome things in the world.” He doesn’t need to be taught that this exuberant-expression-of-his-own-amazing-fortune-at-being-himself is wrong. But he does need to be taught how and when to express it:
The “when” part is pretty straight-forward. It depends quite simply on whether there are other people around who might feel worse about themselves after hearing you talk about your success. If so, hold on to it. In fact, if there are people around who may be feeling shaky about their own successes, this may be a time to sing their praises a little bit. They may have a hard time spotting whatever it is that they have to be proud of. Or your recognition may give them permission to feel pleased with themselves. You want people to feel good about you? Help them feel good about themselves. In an honest, real way, of course.
The “how” part is more complicated, because celebrations pretty easily evolve into comparisons. Then, getting to feel good about yourself depends not on what you have mastered or created but on what others are doing. It means you only get to feel good if you do “better than,” which means that other people’s accomplishments become a threat rather than cause for gladness. It can become important or even necessary to diminish other people, in order to keep from feeling rotten about yourself.
The fact is, that in a world of – are we six billion now? – there are going to be many people who are better than you on any dimension you can think of, many people who are better and people who are way, way better. So, if the focus is on being the best, in the long run you are toast. Fortunately, creations and accomplishments have value in their own right.
Also fortunately, almost everything worthwhile that gets done in the world gets done by people who are not the best at it. If physicists only got to do research if they were as brilliant as Albert Einstein, they would all be sitting on their haunches. If only the best basketball all star got to feel good about how he played the game, there wouldn’t be any basketball. If only the best physician bothered practicing medicine, we would be hurting. Cities are built, gadgets are invented, whales are saved, countries are run by ordinary people doing what they can in whatever matters to them, and getting satisfaction from it.
I said it is complicated, because some our successes involve competitions, in which case, doing “better than” is what it’s all about. Also, it is impossible to get completely away from measuring yourself against other people, and probably undesirable as well. We learn from those measurements what directions we want to move in and what is possible. We get inspired. But rare is the person who needs to be taught to do this kind of comparing. It seems instinctive. In order to truly take pleasure in most of our accomplishments, what we need is to drop the comparisons and look at the attainment in the context of our own development and priorities.
So that’s the goal. To be able to look at what you’ve done, independent of those six billion people, and to ask, “Is it growth, is it cool, is it worthwhile?” and to be able to celebrate when the answer is yes. But the celebration definitely doesn’t have to be alone. Not everybody is vulnerable to feeling threatened by whatever it is that you just accomplished. That is one of the great things about having a parent or being a parent. A parent gets to listen and take it all in and be unabashedly delighted. They can whoop and cheer right along (and, secretly, of course, give themselves a little kudos too). A parent is one of the safest people in the world to draw into your celebrations, because they haven’t quite figured out that they aren’t you. (We parents never completely do, you know.)
There are other people too, who can join you when you know how to select them. Frequently this depends on what exactly it is that you are celebrating, how accomplished the other person is in that area, what their goals are, how they feel about themselves. You can also teach other people what you need in the way of their participation. My husband has figured me out, over the course of ten years. He finds me staring happily at some landscape rocks I have just rearranged, and I say, “Aren’t they great? (Translate: Aren’t I cool?)” and he says, “They look great! You are so cool.” And then I go back happily to digging in the garden, working away contentedly at my next major project, with his kudos and my own hanging over me when the sun gets hot and the weeds keep growing and I have to move a perennial five times before I decide it’s in the right place.
That is what I said to Nella, and this is what more I want to say to you: Kids are smart, explain it to them, they don’t need the bragging rule to be all or nothing. Then, label what you see them doing when things go awry: “Hmm, I think I hear gloating.” Or “I know you beat your sister, but that sounded like a put down.” Or, “Look at Marley right now. You are really proud of your picture, but how do you think she is feeling. Let’s talk about hers for a while.” They need you to stop them cold when celebrating turns into jockeying for status or even cruelty. Children are perfectly capable of using their accomplishments in these ways, often with a surprising amount of subtlety and finesse.
Coach them on how to celebrate well. Script it if you need to. It’s ok to tell them, “Say this: I really like my picture.” (Rather than “My picture is better than Darcy’s, isn’t it, Mom.”) Model with words of your own, both when they have cause to be proud and when you do. Amplify their pleasure: if something is a big deal, then make a big deal of it with a ritual or a treat, or a gift of your time. Help them to recall the process of getting there, to remember the frustrations they overcame and times when they thought they wouldn’t succeed. Guide them in thinking more complexly, in considering different skills they used in a game, different aspects of color and form in their artwork, different projects in a history class, and so on. That way they can focus on the parts that please them.
And take time to revel in your own successes. There are more than you realize.