I’m not the one who’s proud of you!
As parents, we can hardly resist the urge of telling our children how proud we are of them. Any excuse will do: they completed their homework; they were polite or kind; they ate all their dinner; they did well at school… any little step in the right direction and we cannot contain our excitement and pride!
Not that there is anything wrong with expressing positive feelings of pride, but in all that euphoria we must still remember one thing: It is the child who should feel proud.
But how can they not feel proud of themselves if you are constantly affirming your pride in them? Well, the link is not as obvious as we may see it. Pride is an intimate feeling. Think about it, if your employer, or a loved one, tells you how proud they are of you, you would only share that feeling of pride if you knew you did something to be proud of, something that agrees with your internal values.
Pride is a feeling which comes attached to internal values. If you value honesty, you feel proud of yourself in a situation where you have demonstrated honesty. To feel proud of the fact that you have been kind to someone, you must first value kindness.
This is also true when it comes to your child. If being kind is not something that your child finds important or valuable, then an act of kindness is nothing to feel proud about. We must first teach our children kindness as a value, to then help them recognize it.
This becomes even more evident if you take eating, for instance. We as adults know the importance of eating well. For a two year old, or even a five year old, eating well logically means eating something that tastes good, like chocolate. If you haven’t taken the time to teach your child why it is important to eat well, you and your child do not share the same point of reference when judging how well your child has eaten. Therefore, when you say “I’m so proud of you for eating all your food”, the message you are sending is: “when you eat everything on your plate, it makes me happy for some reason”. This is not a logical or natural association. Your child is not capable of understanding when or why it makes you feel happy. If when they eat all their food it makes you happy, then why were you not happy when they found the box of chocolates and ate it all? Without helping your child to form his or her own value system, and then act according to those values, much of the positive feedback you give to your child is meaningless.
Often when we think we are teaching our children to “do the right thing,” we start from the middle and not from the roots. Your child does not always have the tools to understand more complex emotions, like pride, if they cannot experience it personally and learn to recognize how it feels. If children do not really understand the reason behind their parents’ feelings of pride, it is very difficult for them to make it happen again. Pride then becomes this random feeling that parents experience, something they do not really know how to control. For a child, the direct relationship between a parent’s feeling of pride and the child’s action is not evident. It requires more emotional development.
If, instead, your child is taught the importance of adopting healthy eating habits, and then chooses to eat well based on that newly acquired knowledge, the feeling of pride is internal: It is directly experienced by your child. Only then can your child understand your own feelings of pride over having eaten well. Often young children are still working on understanding and adopting their own values.
Now, assuming that you and your child are on the same page, there is still one important detail to keep in mind: It is your child’s feelings of personal pride that we should be focusing on, not yours. What this means is that once the child recognizes that feeling internally, we as parents must give them ownership of it.
It is more important for them to feel pride than for us to feel pride as parents. The latter gives your child great satisfaction, but the first is the one that will affirm and strengthen your child’s character. Because pride serves, on its own, as a positive reinforcement: Your child understands the value of being kind to someone, acts upon it and consequently feels proud as a result of that behavior. This will help ensure that the behavior occurs again.
If on the other hand, it is us as parents who are deciding and expressing when we feel proud of a particular behavior, without helping our children recognize this new feeling autonomously, our children will learn to do “good things” because it pleases us (not necessarily because they feel that it is important to them).
In other words, we are placing greater importance on our own judgment instead of helping our children learn to form theirs, and get in the habit of evaluating their own actions. The drawback is that when we are not around, our children may not necessarily know how to make the right decisions, having always had our approval or feedback. They may not have the confidence in themselves, or simply lack the experience. It is important that children recognize from the beginning that they are the ones who “choose” to do the right thing, not because it makes their parents happy, but because it is important to them.
If on the other hand, we help our children recognize and experience feelings of pride and other such feelings, we are raising truly autonomous children, and what that means is that whether we are there or not, our children will have learned to do what feels right, and recognize the pride and satisfaction that comes from doing so.
So next time you leap about with uncontainable pride for a meal well eaten (which absolutely should involve such festivities!), just make sure that your child can share the fun, and the feeling too. What’s the magic word? “Well done! You must feel very proud of yourself! I too am so proud of you!”
Natacha V. Beim
Founder, Cefa Educational Systems