Last week at a speaking engagement in Illinois, I asked my audience of parents to tell me about their kids.
Not just “tell” me about them, but brag. I gave them permission to boast. Pull out the smartphone, if they wanted, to show off the photos.
I had to cajole them into doing it.
Hard to believe, right? We’re a society that practically rents billboards to broadcast our children’s accomplishments. Our Christmas cards sing the praises of our friend’s children (rather than oh, say, the Baby Jesus). Heck, in the suburbs, “student of the month” bumper stickers cover cars like Turtle Wax.
But this group was at least polite and knew that bragging is still considered declasse, if not downright rude. But without their boasts, my point would be lost.
At last, one mom obliged with a proud but general statement that her son is a terrific lacrosse player.
A dad mentioned his daughter’s good grades. Another parent was pleased to describe what a good job her daughter had done reading aloud in church.
When the floodgates finally opened, a mom got into the spirit of the thing and offered up details about her son’s academic prowess and his elite sports team and, not to show favoritism, also mentioned that her daughter has had all A’s for three semesters.
I talked about how much I admire my eldest daughter’s moral compass. She’s as ethical a young woman as I have ever met. Daughter No. 2 is remarkably empathetic; she senses what’s up with others and always seems to respond appropriately — and wisely. My son is the hardest working person I’ve ever met, bar none. He’s fearless in the face of difficult things, and never lets failure get the best of him. My youngest is a girl of integrity, no matter how badly the truth might impede her social plans.
The reason I offered my audience “bragging rights” and allowed myself to crow a bit about my kids? To demonstrate that we’ve become habituated to the achievement culture and to teach, if only by example, that we shouldn’t define our children by their successes, but by their virtue.
Perhaps the best book on parenting in this way is not actually a parenting book at all, but is Paul Tough’s sociological study of children’s character. In “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” Mr. Tough reveals that American children — even those mired in poverty and without the advantages of suburban “helicopter parents” — are able to achieve ultimate success not because of what they have or how they do things, but because of who they are.