Showing Off

Nobody wants a child who shows off. At the same time, most of us look for ways to show off our children. What a mixed message this sends. "I'm allowed to be proud of you, but you'd better not be proud of yourself."

I have a vivid fragment of memory from when I was very small. I was running up and down in front of our house to show some guests how fast and wonderful I was. The feeling of exultation, of glory in being me, was exquisite--but brief. I was told quietly but firmly not to show off. Like a balloon with the helium seeping out, I shrank back down to a more "appropriate" and far less noticeable form. It's a bittersweet memory. I'm very glad that I went for that moment of exultation, of total, up-front delight in being me. That memory is a bright spot in muted expanse of quiet, careful childhood obedience. But it's all the more sad that I, along with so many other children, was told in no uncertain terms that I was bad for doing it.

It's as if we don't want our children to show, except on our own terms. We desperately want everybody to see their "best" qualities. We want relatives and strangers to see how prettily-behaved and well-spoken they are. We want them to show in all their glory at Little League games and violin recitals. If we could wear their successful report-cards around our necks, we would. (And bumper stickers about honor roll children come pretty close.)

Of course we want to be proud of our children, want to be able to show them off. What could be more natural? Since they are seen as extensions of their parents, their accomplishments reflect directly on us. And since we were all trained that it's bad to look proud of ourselves, showing off our children is one of the few ways that we're allowed to put ourselves forward.

But what if we broke that cycle? What if we let them show on their own terms? What if we gave them permission to be publicly proud of themselves? It's hard for me to envision what that would look like for older children--it's such a foreign concept. But I can sure see it with the toddlers.

Toddlers are thrilled with what they are able to do, and delighted to share it with anyone. Whether the new skill is walking or running or throwing a ball, they look out as pleased as can be, and expect to see that pleasure reflected on the faces around them. If this is "showing off", if this is "being full of yourself", it sure looks good. Is there anyone who wouldn't be thrilled to show themselves like that, with the confidence that their delight would be shared?

"Hey, look how good I am! Look what I can do!" What would it be like if our children felt free to say that to anyone? What would it be like if they could count on a warm, appreciative response? "My, you certainly are good! I'm so glad you showed me." My guess is that most of us were starved for that kind of response. As adults, with any child we know or see, we now have the power to feed.