Beneath the Boast

When you hear a statement like this from your child:

I can reach level 493 of Boomcraft. I have master grade swordsmanship and 93 power skills. I’m really good, better than anyone in my class.

Do you respond with?

  1. “I don’t give a  sh**t.”

  2. “Honey, it’s very rude to brag.”

  3. A vacant smile and feigned interest.

If you want to answer:

  1. you’re absolutely normal.

  2. you’re normal too.

  3. that also makes you a perfectly normal person.

It’s hard to field a statement like this in a meaningful way. Bragfests can be boring and offensive.

But we want to be good parents. We want to not swear at them when they share their news. We want to help them understand that bragging doesn’t play well in our culture. We want to be genuine and enthusiastic.

How do we get there from the trenches of Boomcraft boasting?

Let’s take a closer look at where the need to toot one’s own horn arises. It comes from a desire to be seen, understood, and valued. These are primary human needs that we all share. When these needs are not met in a fairly regular way via interactions with the people we love, it is extremely uncomfortable. Let me underscore that point: The drive to get these basic needs met is so strong that we will do almost anything – it is as if our survival depends on it.

And it does.

We are a tribe-based species. Remaining an integral part of the pack is wired into our DNA, it is the key to making it through the deep dark night. Our brains do not function well when they suspect our social position is at risk, and they start to move processing into the lower reptilian brain – a state we all remember as the fight, flight, or fright frame of mind. That’s why we panic when someone doesn’t call us back, or why a friendship can come to blows with a dirty look.

So it makes sense that our children’s need to belong drives them to capture our consideration and esteem with a few choice details from their successful exploits, but that’s not the end of the story. Though the drive is a natural one, as parents, many of us do one particular thing that exacerbates the situation – we use a reward system.

When our kids get good grades, we take them out for ice cream. When they hug their sad friend, we say: “Good Job, Buddy! That was so nice of you!” When they clear their plate without our asking, we beam at them with pride.

We set this system up, yet when they play along - bringing a list of praise-worthy details to us - we are annoyed, pedantic, or distant. Sure, video game prowess seems like a stretch, it plays no obvious part in the real world, but what else have they got? A ten-year-old’s resume is scanty at best.

What’s that Ice-T line? “Don’t hate the player, hate the game”?

It’s not fair for us to draw up the rules of the game – perform well and you can have my full love-drenched attention – and then criticize the player when he jumps through the established hoops as best he can. And bragfests aren’t the only fallout from this set up. If we establish that a child’s job is to please an authority in order to receive life-giving appreciation, guess what happens when they reach their teens and the authoritative position is no longer ours to hold? Suddenly peers become the pack members to satisfy and because of our diligent training during the early years, our child now dutifully seeks the approval of them instead.

Many parents, when they realize the Catch22s involved in this parenting strategy, instead of praising when a child achieves, praise continuously, no matter what the activity or level of performance. But this correction misses the mark as well because the game is the same: You perform, I evaluate.

If we want our children to have a sense of worth that is independent of winning, losing, video game scores, physical achievements, popularity, looks, etc., we must redesign the game.

Perhaps the rules of the new game look something like this:

  1. I will not wait for my child to do something good before I give them my appreciation. They have my love because it is an unconditional part of our relationship.

  2. I will offer my consideration and esteem regularly because my children need it as a matter of emotional health.

  3. I will give of my attention freely in the form of eye contact, neutral observations, and active interest
    - “I see you!”
    - “Woohoo!”
    - “Show me again!”
    - “You seem excited about that!”

  4. I will not withhold my attention as a behavior manipulation tool.

  5. I will not praise performance, but rather encourage self-reflection and personal goal setting by asking instead:
    - “How was that for you? Did you meet your goals?”

  6. I will help my child understand the effect of their positive actions, not by praising them, but by sharing with them how that action was received.
    - “It seems like your friend felt so much better after you offered him that hug.”

  7. When my children seek to please me, as is natural for all humans, I will thank them for considering me, and later remind them gently that I love them no matter what, not because they performed a task that I appreciate.

By restructuring the rules of the game, we essentially remake our relationship with our children. They will need our approval less because we give it freely and without ties to a particular performance. This generosity leaves them less hungry and less desperate, and less likely to turn into peer pleasers as they mature.

So there you are in the kitchen, you’ve successfully reset the rules of the game. You’ve been giving your child your interest and attention independent from his behavior. You’re feeling good about expressing your unconditional love with eye contact, curiosity questions, and neutral responses.  Your lovely son wants to tell you all about Boomcraft and his many triumphs. Though you’ve been working hard to redesign your relationship there is some carryover from the previous pattern, and you can tell that this little boy is trying to impress you with stats and boasts of his social standing.

You still feel a little triggered and have to dig deep to respond in a helpful manner, but you try to view him with new eyes. What you see is a tender soul who needs proof of his significance, who needs to feel important in your eyes, who is checking to see if you understand him. You take a deep breath, reminding yourself of the new rules, of your new goals and hopes. You remember that though his chosen subject matter is not interesting, he is, and Boomcraft is just the current window into his heart.

And you respond:

“Oh really?! That sounds like it’s important to you. Tell me about that, the sense that you’re really good at something. How does that feel?”

Then you listen, with a full-beaming face.


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Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children and is the co-teacher of Annapurna Living's MOTHER course. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her dog.

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