First, let me thank Joel Monka at CUUMBAYA for posting a link to Jim Hancock’s Ten Things We Should Never Say to Our Kids. I have to say I have yet to read all 10 chapters, but read through the first three this a.m., then skipped ahead to Thing Five: I’m Proud of You. I had to. It was the chapter that caught my eye first and foremost, as a mother, but mostly as a daughter.
I wish I could remember how old I was when my father announced he would no longer tell us he was proud of us, but he did just that. Announced it. His reasons were not unlike the one’s Jim Hancock outlines (my father said the term implied ownership, Hancock says it implies that you had something to do with the child’s accomplishment). As a mother, I get what they both are saying. Intellectually, I do. But, emotionally, my father’s announcement was the same as saying “I can never be proud of you, so don’t try.”
What stage of development was I in when he made his announcement? I believe I had not yet reached puberty while my sister two-years-older had. I believe that the announcement really had little effect on me at the time because, well, I had no real accomplishments. But for my sister, the announcement was devastating. Because she DID have accomplishments. Involved in AAU track, she held a national record for high jump for her age level (I think it was 11-12). She has always identified me as “the smart one” because that was the label I was somehow pinned with (wearing glasses didn’t help). She continues to do so, as I found out when we spent so much time together at the end of my father’s life. My mother didn’t help, deep in the place of despair, whenever I offered a common-sense solution to a less-than-critical-problem, she would blink her eyes a few times and say “oh, aren’t you the clever one” (I think this may be covered in Thing 4 of Hancock’s book, the chapter I haven’t read yet, “You are the Prettiest Little Thing”–something no one has EVER said to me, I might add, because, as I mentioned, I was “the smart one”).
I’m rambling, I know. I love my sister. She is 48 and retired–and for her success, I think she can and should be proud of herself. But, I know, she also ached to hear my father say those exact words to her. He could have and may very well have said all the other things that Hancock says are alright to say, “hooray, look what you learned/achieved, etc.” But what my sister heard and what has become a part of her very DNA is this: “my father will never be proud of her.”
What is true here? I can tell you from the vantage point where I sit right now that my father never meant to do harm. And, had he simply stopped saying “I’m proud of you” and said those other things instead, my sister would have heard “I’m proud of you.” Instead, he made an ANNOUNCEMENT which had both the exact and the opposite impacts he meant to foster. My sister is very accomplished, and all on her own. And yet, she has this permanent scar on her heart, inflicted by the first man to love her.
My father would never have put the bumper stickers on his vehicle that I have on mine. Yep, I have those dopey “honor student” bumper stickers, one for each kid. It is directly because of my father’s announcement that I do so. Yes, you can think I’m enabling bad behavior. And yes, I tell my children I am proud of them. But I do, as Hancock advises, turn that praise into something they own, not something I created. “Look at these grades. You should be so proud of yourself. I know I’m proud of your accomplishments.” Or some such.
I’m mending my own wounds (and those of my sister) with such behavior. It has nothing to do with my own children and everything to do with what I would like to have heard. And I’m adult enough now to know that my father was doing what he thought was best for us, and were he able to understand the consequences of his behavior, he would have done things differently. I’m sure. Or, maybe that’s the mythology I’m telling myself because it is how i want my children to look at me, when they look through the lens of being adults, being parents, being people who make their own mistakes, however well-intentioned the original act.
I can see past my father’s words to his intention. His intention was to get us to accomplish for the sake of accomplishment, not for the sake of pleasing him or my mother. And here’s the irony of that: up to the point of his announcement, I doubt I would have thought twice about living a life to gain his approval (I was still young); but since? Well, were I in therapy, this most undoubtedly would have come up, as it continues to as I struggle with what mark I will leave in this world. I am not proud of all I have done in my life, but I can say without doubt that I am proud I continue to try to make sense of it all–mistakes and all–and that I continue to adapt as I learn more.
I’m not angry at my father for this, anymore. Long before he died, I worked this through in my head, just as I continue to work through all the mistakes I’ve made (and continue to make) and the potential for life-long scarring on the hearts of my daughters. But it is obviously something that still rankles my psyche. So, while Hancock asks us not to do the things our parents did that we hated, I have to say, “I’m proud of you,” is one of the things my father didn’t say that I have incorporated in my life. And hopefully in a more healthy manner than it was used in previous generations. There has to be a healthy middle ground. I hope I find it.
P.S.: I feel compelled to add, if you haven’t read between the lines: I’m very proud of my sister, too.