Mommy bloggers (and their daddy counterparts, too) agree about almost nothing. Some favor co-sleeping; others do not. Some favor banning video games; others do not. Similar disputes surround breast-feeding, vaccines, cursing and whether it’s OK to force-feed your child broccoli.
But a rare consensus has emerged on at least one topic. What subject could possibly be so clear-cut it has elicited once-in-a-generation unanimity?
That parents should stop bragging about their children.
That’s right, apparently the civil rights issue of our age is that you have the right to remain silent — and I have the right not to hear about — how your daughter learned to read at 16 months, your son scored 12 goals in the soccer game and your darling got into Brown, his first choice! (All these examples were taken from actual anti-bragging diatribes.)
Consider these headlines from recent months. BabyCenter: “I Hate Hearing About Your Gifted Child.” Cafe Mom: “8 Most Ridiculous Things Moms Brag About.” WebMD: “How to Handle Parents Who Brag About Their Kids.” Yahoo! Voices: “Are You Sick of Being One-Upped by Fellow Moms?” Berkeley Parents Network: “My Friends’ Saintly Kids.”
Don’t get me wrong. I get the annoyance. A friend of my wife once boasted about her daughter’s high Apgar score (a rating on vital signs for newborns). But I’ve also heard plenty of parental brags that seemed not only justified, but downright heartwarming: the tone-deaf parent marveling at a child who can sing; the parent who never went to college proud that a child got a scholarship; the harried mother of three grateful that an older sibling is acting sweet toward a newborn.
Parenting is tough enough; can’t you take a victory lap every now and then?
So why has this otherwise minor corner of family life created such strong feelings? Part of it may be that we live in an era when many children scurry from pottery class to gymnastics to chess club. With more activities come more chances for scores, ribbons and gold stars. Also, with Facebook, Facetime, Twitter and the like, there are more outlets for showing off.
Whatever the reason, the time seems ripe for a truce in the bragging wars. I set out to devise some guidelines for acceptable chest-thumping.
Brag about how good a child you have, not how good a parent you are. Adriana Trigiani, the best-selling author of “Big Stone Gap” and “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” says she’s most annoyed when parents trumpet their child-rearing skills instead of their good fortune. “I’ve noticed when parents brag, it’s usually a reflection of their wonderful parenting skills and not their child’s natural abilities,” she said. “When I see people like Donald Trump on TV taking full credit for how his children turned out, that’s the kind of bragging that gets under people’s skin.”
Brag about effort, not accomplishment. One of the signature parenting ideas of the past few years — praise effort, not achievement — applies equally well to boasting. Brad Meltzer, who wrote “The Fifth Assassin” and two nonfiction books about children, says he doesn’t mind if parents talk about their children’s passions. “If you say, ‘My kid loves reading,’ that’s OK,” he said. “If you say, ‘My kid is the best reader in his grade,’ I start the hate machine.” He added: “It’s the difference between murder and manslaughter. It’s all in the intent.”
Brag in context. Meltzer says he generally doesn’t mind if parents brag, as long as they don’t pretend they’re Stepford parents and their children are angels. “I want to hear the bragging in the context of real, gritty, poopy life,” he said. “If you’re trying to sell me your perfect life, the hate machine starts humming again.”
Follow “the bragging formula.” Another common piece of advice — each time you criticize someone, you should give multiple compliments — applies equally well in reverse. Each boast about a child should come surrounded by three negatives. My son is on the honor roll (but still wets his bed).
Laura Zigman, best-selling author of “Animal Husbandry” and “Her,” says she welcomes such a bragging formula but is concerned that for braggy parents, even the counternegative might end up being boastful. As she wrote in an e-mail, “My son got an A+ in Sanskrit ... but he still can’t write his name in Mandarin!! #dummy!” or “His room is so messy he’s going to discover new particles of matter in it someday! #MIT-bound.”
Don’t brag about something everyone else struggles with. Zigman says she doesn’t want to hear that you’ve nailed some child-rearing problem she hasn’t. “I don’t want to know what ‘healthy eaters’ your kids are,” she said, “unless you’re posting photos of your kids stuffing their faces with Cheetos and Oreos. If you post photos or updates of how much they love kale chips — for real — I will hide you from my feed. #childkalebrag.”
In-and-out brag. Approach bragging as your child approaches cough syrup: If you must do it, get it over quickly. Ian Frazier, the author of “The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days,” says he usually doesn’t mind when parents discuss their children. “The pleasure you take in something your kid does is greater than the pleasure in something you do yourself,” he said. But after a while, “my eye starts to droop.” Parents need to heed such warning signs, he said. “Ignoring them is the same as making a loud cell-phone call about your hammer-toe surgery on the train.”
Avoid double bragging. Zigman says parents are also not allowed to use their children’s lives to draw attention to their own past glories. Your child’s SAT scores are not an excuse to remind us of yours. As Zigman wrote: “Don’t brag about taking your kids on college tours if they’re tours of Ivy League schools and if you yourself went to an Ivy League school. That’s a double brag.” (“Was so weird to be back in Cambridge with my teenage son this weekend! Past and present colliding!”)
Bragging to Granny is allowed. Everyone agrees that boasting to your own parents is not just acceptable, it’s desirable. Meltzer says: “There is, of course, the Grandparent Exception. You can brag all you want to the child’s own grandparents. And grandparents can — and will — brag back. This isn’t a choice. It’s nature.”
Bundle brag. But even such intrafamily bragging has pitfalls. Trigiani, who has six siblings, said that when speaking to her mother, she is careful to compliment her own daughter, Lucia, only after doing the same to all of her nieces and nephews. “I start with the oldest, and do it in order,” she said. “Oh, my gosh, Anna just read another book this week, and Matt won that swimming thing.” Only then does she toss in an aside about Lucia. Trigiani calls it “bundle bragging.”
As a parent, I find the unspoken reason this topic sparks such passion is that the same feeling underlies the braggers and the anti-braggers: fear.
Most parents are quietly petrified that we don’t know what we’re doing or, worse, that we’re doing something ruinously wrong. As Trigiani said: “When a parent brags, part of it is pride. And part of it is relief, because this child is doing something wonderful in a world where a lot of bad things happen.”
Bragging about our children is a way of relieving our anxiety that we’re not total losers as parents. The opposite instinct, what we might call “reverse bragging” — “My kid’s more screwed up than yours”; “I’m such a bad mom, I never go to the playground without a martini” — comes out of the same place.
If there is to be a truce in the bragging wars, it’s because both sides want the same thing: reassurance that they’re doing a passable job at something that’s very hard.