By Elizabeth Richardson Rau
I was stopped at a red light recently and pondered the stick figure family affixed to the back window of the minivan in front of me: one soccer player, a lacrosse player and a couple of cheerleaders. I have one sticker on the back of my car—round, decorated with sherbet-colored flowers, it looks like something that would be on the side of a VW bus heading to Woodstock—that says “Pay it Forward.” The abundance of familial advertising on the back of that minivan got me wondering whether I should have stickers promoting my three-person family. If I advertised the realities of raising my teenaged son, they might look something like this: Future pot farmer on board! Bedroom smells like a gym locker! Suspended for having cigarettes in backpack! F in English = summer school! I don’t recall seeing any of these on the racks at my local Target, though.
Raising children, particularly teenagers, is a tricky business. Parenting is tough enough without the added pressure of competing with those who publicly proclaim to be doing it better than we are. I wonder when our children’s accomplishments became the source of our own self-esteem. And what message does advertising only the positive send to typical kids who miss curfew, roll their eyes and talk back? Public promotion of our kids’ accolades not only creates a false reality for other parents but teaches our children to conceal the reality of life: that it is messy and imperfect, just like they are.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents did not contact our extended family or friends each time I did something boast-worthy, nor did they send a holly-trimmed newsletter each December bragging about my successes of the past eleven months. They did not have bumper stickers of any kind of the backs of their cars, certainly not ones advertising my identity as a tennis star or piano player. From them, I learned that the accomplishments themselves made me feel good, not the praise I received from others for achieving them. I was a typical teenager, much like the one that I am raising, an average student who participated in extra-curricular activities largely against my wishes; left to my own devices, I would have raced home every day after school to watch Little House on the Prairie while eating spray cheese straight out of the can. I did participate in many sticker-worthy activities, yet virtually no one outside my immediate family knew about it. There was no social media, and parental competition was something passed from ear to ear, not trumpeted from the top of the Internet mountaintop.
With Facebook came the public platform for showboating (Ate oatmeal for breakfast! Ran 5.5 miles! Twenty years ago, married the love of my life!). Twitter brought the capability to do so in 140-characters or less. When I was a pimply-faced, awkward adolescent, information moved at the turtle-slow pace of a note passed in the school hallway. My parents never thought to brag about my piano concert or number of tennis match wins. But today, with one click of a button or the slap of a sticker, the world is in the know about our business.
Why should we, as parents, care about public recognition for our kids’ accomplishments, and when did it become popular for parents to take credit for their children’s successes? I don’t recall ever seeing stickers advertising parental successes on the backs of any minivans (Employee of the month! Won preferred parking space at the gym! Voted most popular in book club!), so why do we put this pressure on our kids? Are we so desperate, as parents, for recognition of our kids’ achievements that we are willing to sacrifice the powerful lesson of gaining esteem from accomplishment to get it?
Listening in to conversations at high school sporting events, I hear mothers bragging about kids’ grades, sports wins, extra-curricular successes and those college applications! My son will be attending community college and while I am proud of his choice, mention it and people back away slowly, as though it might be catching. Community college is not sexy or prestigious, despite it being the best choice for my son. He doesn’t know what he wants to be for the rest of his life and has enough common sense to find out before investing a small fortune in an education he feels would be for show.
It is the accomplishments themselves, not the public trumpeting, that should generate self-esteem and self-worth. Teaching our children, particularly our vulnerable teenagers, to base their value on acceptance and third-party praise is one of the most damaging things we can do as parents. Instilling the value that being the best we can be, without recognition or judgment by others, is far more meaningful than advertising it. Life is about balance—with every accomplishment comes equal failure—so advertising only the good promotes a reality that is unattainable and puts pressure on our kids to be something that doesn’t exist: perfect.
My son learned a hard lesson when he lost his circle of friends because he was publicly honest about smoking pot. He admitted an imperfect choice, one that many of his friends also made regularly, and became an outcast overnight. The mothers of these boys, one of whom was my closest friend, led the social exodus and my children and I became prey to the realities of false advertising: it must look perfect in order to be accepted or worthy. Parenting teenagers is rarely pretty, but attractive lies are apparently far more appealing than ugly truths. Interestingly, the void left room for other families who were more interested in what we were on the inside as opposed to what we presented on the outside. Our social circle is smaller, yet more authentic as a result.
With drug use, suicides and mental health struggles in the adolescent population at epidemic levels, we must ask ourselves, as parents, if we should be advertising our kids differently, if at all. Teaching children to value themselves for their successes and be real about their struggles might be healthier than advertising partial truths. Perhaps the time has come to place value where it should really be: who we are as human beings instead of what we are achieving. Isn’t being—not bragging—the foundation of good self-esteem?
Be instead of brag. Maybe we can make that into a bumper sticker.
Author’s note: I continue to emphasize internal authenticity with my kids despite the challenges of doing so in a social media-obsessed world. We are regular practitioners of paying it forward and strive to “be instead of brag.”
Elizabeth Richardson Rau received her B.A. in journalism from Simmons College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Western Connecticut State University. She is a freelance writer and marketing communications strategist and lives in central Connecticut with her two children.