“I’m So Proud of You!” What a Terrible Thing to Say?

“I’m So Proud of You!” What a Terrible Thing to Say?

Regularly telling kids “I’m so proud of you” is one of the most simple, common and unintentional mistakes that my counselors in training make. And they aren’t alone. I have heard many, many well-intentioned parents, teachers and coaches say that exact same thing over and over again in my 25 years working with kids. In fact some of you reading or listening to this are probably thinking you’ve heard it or said it yourself half a dozen times as well. We’ve grown up hearing it said to ourselves and to others. And it is presented as such a normal, heartwarming interaction in television and movies, isn’t it? For those of us in leadership, it is no wonder that we think it often and, if we aren’t careful, say it almost just as much. So what’s wrong with it again, because it actually sounds pretty benign, doesn’t it? Well, let me start by saying that there are plenty of worse things that people can and do say to kids and it doesn’t cause harm directly or even necessarily by saying it just once or twice. So, if you slip up from time to time, don’t worry, you aren’t going to ruin someone’s life. But there are some significant problems with it that we need to talk about. Ok, so here we go.

When we tell people we are proud of them, it is usually in response to something that they have done – an accomplishment, a decision, a performance – some type of positive action. And often our attempt is to reinforce, approve, or reward that action in a personally meaningful way. The intention is great! Person does something good, reward it so that they continue doing good! What could go wrong?

Maybe it will help if we consider an example. My son Toby has been doing Tai Kwon Do for the last year. He is VERY passionate about it and has progressed through several belts in a very short amount of time. If/when I tell Toby that I am proud of him and/or how he has performed when he earns a new belt or wins a medal at a tournament, it might indeed reinforce his efforts and also convey to Toby that I care about his success. BUT….is there a price tag on my attention and affection? Well no, there’s not, but might Toby perceive it that way?

Nine year old kids are susceptible (as are all of us actually) to thinking irrationally. It is entirely possible that Toby might start thinking that I love him and care about him because of his success doing karate and his decision to continue to do so. In fact, he might even worry that I would lose interest in him and his efforts if he didn’t have that same success every time or if he wanted to try something different next year instead of karate, like the gaming team at school. What else? The added pressure of making his Dad proud could cause him significant performance anxiety the next time he steps on the mat. He might be worrying about letting me down as opposed to priming his mind to compete. Ok, what else could go wrong? His investment in making me proud could also result in his being careless with the truth about his accomplishments or performance so that he could hang on to my support and approval if or when things didn’t go his way. I can imagine him blaming the judges if he lost a sparring match or even his coaches if he didn’t secure an advanced belt following his next belt appraisal. Also, Toby’s motivation might end up being connected more to end results than to health, growth, and improvement. To summarize, my simple and repeatedly responding to his efforts with “I’m proud of you” could result in him experiencing increased stress, an increased likelihood of him being dishonest, not taking responsibility, and less than ideal motivation. Perhaps worst of all, he might think that I care more about how he does at karate than I do about him. All those things would be so counterproductive for my son personally, academically, and someday, vocationally.

His generation will need to be emotionally secure, mentally flexible, self-motivated, embrace adversity, think, and act with integrity in the workplace of tomorrow. And I confidently predict that people who posess those qualities will absolutely thrive, unfortunately because I think that they will be somewhat rare. I want to give Toby every shot at being ready to succeed on the mat, in the classroom, and, someday, in the world of work. But most importantly, I want Toby and all my kids to know that I care for them and about them and that my attention and affection is not dependent upon their performance or even their decisions. My love is unconditional. With unconditional love a foundation, the sky is the limit for them and, really, for any of us in life. Am I proud of my kids? Oh absolutely yes, just please don’t tell them I said so.

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