Three reasons to avoid saying "I'm proud of you".

Larissa Dann     

"I’m proud of you!"  How often do we utter this common parenting phrase, in moments of pleasure at our child’s latest achievement? With the best of intentions, we want to let our children know of our pride in them.

However – what messages might our children actually hear? What do they perceive - when a parent (or teacher) says "I’m proud of you"?

Some years ago I attended a parenting seminar, where the speaker incidentally mentioned avoiding the phrase "I’m proud of you".  For me, this was a huge take-away moment. Had I ever thought about the meaning behind these words?  What would replace this oh-so-common parenting expression?  And why should I stop using this phrase?

Three reasons I avoid saying “I’m proud of you”.

1.   Who ‘owns’ the achievement? (our pride is generally around an achievement).

A Macquarie Dictionary definition of ‘proud’ is: ‘feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something conceived as highly honourable or creditable to oneself’.  The key words (for this discussion) are ‘creditable to oneself’. So - when a parent says, "I’m so proud of you", is the parent taking the credit for the child’s accomplishments?

Let’s look at some examples (followed by some suggested alternatives) – adult first, then child, to help illustrate this point: 

Manager:        "I’m proud of the report you’ve written". 

How might you feel as the worker?  You could feel annoyed and put out.  After all, you were the one who put the effort into writing the report – you did the research, you put the paper together.  Why is your manager taking credit for the work you put into the report?  You could also feel patronised.  Didn’t your manager think you were capable of putting such a report together? (I'd prefer "I'm really impressed with report - I can see how much effort you put in, and it's going to be helpful for the organisation".)

Partner:           "I'm proud of you for landing that job"

While you might understand that your partner is being supportive, might you also feel a bit miffed? Is your partner proud because they can now be associated with a high achiever? (I'd prefer "Congratulations! You worked so hard, you really deserve that job!")

Friend:             "I'm proud of you for being brave and standing up to your boss"

As the friend who has found that courage, is this statement something you would appreciate? (I'd prefer "Wow, that must have taken some thought and courage!")

Parent:            "I’m proud that you got all A’s in your school report/won that tennis trophy"

How might you feel as the child? Might you quietly ask yourself ‘Who was it that put in the hard hours to get a good report? Who put in the practice in order to win that tennis match? Why are you taking the credit for my effort?’ (I'd prefer "Congratulations! You must be so proud of how you're doing!")

True - the parent might have spent hours helping the child get their homework done – or even completing the child’s assignment.  The parent might have paid a lot of money, or given up time, to coach and practice tennis with their winning child.  If this is the case, then of whom is the parent really proud?  Is the child’s achievement actually a reflection of their parent’s achievement?

Of course, the child may feel really pleased to hear this positive evaluation of their efforts.  Which brings me to my next point.

2.   “Proud" as praise - an external judgement of someone else’s achievements. 

Linda Adams, in her book ‘Be Your Best’, quotes Charleszetta Waddles (African American activist): “You can’t give people pride, but you can provide the kind of understanding that makes people look to their inner strengths and find their own sense of pride”.

What are we trying to say or do, when we innocently, and with the best of intentions, praise our children with "I’m proud of you"? We are probably trying to encourage our children, and even instil in them a sense of pride in their own achievements.  However, is this what happens?

‘I’m proud of you’ could be seen as an external judgement – a parent’s verdict on a child’s performance.  The child has done well enough for the parent to bring out the big guns – the ‘proud’ word. Praise such as this is a subject on its own – much research and many, many books have been written on the negative aspects of praise.  Briefly, some difficulties include:

  • Praise does not help bring up children who have an internal belief in themselves, of self-worth. Someone else’s pride in you does not usually translate to pride in yourself.
  • If a parent can say, ‘I’m proud of you’, then can the parent also say the opposite – ‘I’m disappointed in you’?  Imagine this:

Four-year-old John shows his Mum a painting he's just done. She says "Good boy. I'm so proud of your painting!" John decides to replicate his painting (for the reward of praise, not for his own sense of improvement and competence), and looks up at his mother with rapturous expectation. He gets a "that's nice". By the fifth repeat of the painting, the response from him mother may quite different from the first. Now, John may hear "I'm disappointed that this is the same picture. Can't you do something different?" And John is left feeling confused and despondent.

  • Children may become dependent on their parents’ (and others, such as teachers’ or grandparents’) evaluation of their achievements. This can stop the development of their own inner-discipline, and keep them reliant on the external judgement of others.  They may stop trying to do their best.

Children whose parents constantly say "I'm proud of you" may grow to be adults who rely on other people's opinion of them for validation. They may find it difficult to take pride in who they are and what they have achieved.  They may continually search for praise from their bosses, their co-workers, their partners.  They may become adults who are vulnerable, who do not have a strong sense of self-worth. 

I avoid "well done" or "good job" – for all the reasons I’ve stopped saying "I’m proud of you". Again, these phrases are my evaluation of my child’s effort. Instead, I try implementing the approach from Parent Effectiveness Training (PET), a peaceful, gentle approach to parenting, that teaches respectful communication skills, and offers alternatives to using rewards (such as praise), or punishments (such as saying "I’m disappointed").

3. Implies superiority; patronising.

The phrase "I’m proud of you" insinuates that the speaker (parent, teacher, co-worker, boss) has more experience, or power, or in some manner has the right to pronounce their opinion, on someone else’s effort.

The effect of this praise might be opposite to the aim of the parent.  Rather than the child feeling respected for their efforts, they may feel patronised, put-down.  A person receiving this praise could also feel belittled – it could feel as though their achievement was unexpected - a surprise to the other person.

Children who are continually praised, or told "I’m proud of you" may not believe their parent.  They may start to see their parent as being insincere, or even manipulative.

“I’m proud of you” is a loaded term.

Since first publishing this piece, I've spent many years thinking about, and discussing, why children might like to hear their parents say "I'm proud of you". Why is this such a contentious phrase? I think it’s about the underlying meaning of these words to a child.

I have deep concerns if children crave to hear "I'm proud of you" because they want to know that their parents approve of them - of their behaviour, of their decisions in life. Approval is different to acceptance. Approval is a parent's judgement of a child's choices - and to a child, this feels like a judgement of them as a person. Continually acting to seek the approval of a parent is onerous for a child. Who are children then living their life for - themselves, or their parent?

If parents don't 'approve' of their child, then they disapprove. I don’t think there is a neutral position. Living with a parent’s disapproval, or continually seeking a parent’s approval, is a life-long burden.

I think children want simply to be accepted and respected as themselves. Imperfect, striving, playful, loving, learning.

Our children need to know that we believe in them, that we trust them, that we support them, that we love them, that we acknowledge them as individuals separate from us.

When we avoid the phrase “I’m proud of you”, we allow our children to be their own person, to grow to their own potential - in a relationship of mutual respect.

Alternatives to saying "I’m proud of you".

There are alternatives to praise and saying "I’m proud of you", and they include:

  • "Wow!! I’m so impressed!"
  • "I love who you are!"
  • "You must be so proud!"
  • "I value you!"
  • "I’m proud for you"
  • "I’m so pleased for you"
  • "You look really pleased with your effort"
  • "Congratulations!"
  • "I'm so proud to be your Mum/Dad!"
  • "I believe in you"
  • "I trust you"

I consciously have to stop myself  from saying "I’m  proud of you".  I believe the effort has been worth it – for my children, and our relationship.

A special note on research suggesting that parents saying "I'm proud of you" prevents future mental illness and suicidal ideation in their children.

A 2017 analysis of 2012 national data from the US, showed that parent behaviour could have a protective role in a their child's mental health. In this research, children of parents who never said "I'm proud of you" were significantly more likely to contemplate, plan or attempt suicide.

So - does this research negate my concerns regarding the phrase "I'm proud of you"?

It seems to me that the authors of the study used the phrase 'I'm proud of you' as a catch-all measurement, to reflect a parent's emotional connection with, and support, for, their child - and that it was this emotional involvement that provided protection against suicidal ideation.  At the same time, the paper stated that "a key is to ensure that children feel positively connected to their parents and family," and that parents needed to demonstrate to their children that "they cared about them", that they "had their back".

I do not believe that parents need to say "I'm proud of you" to show their support of, and their emotional connection to, their child. Rather, relationship skills where we communicate respectfully by listening, by positive I-Messages, by problem solving with our child, will help ensure our children feel connected and valued, and provide our children with a sense of emotional safety.

References:

Reading the Parent Effectiveness Training book, or attending a PET course, will help develop positive and respectful parent-child relationships, and explore alternatives to praise.

The Four Words That Can Protect Your Child's Mental Health

Parenting Behaviours Linked to Suicide Amongst Adolescents

First published 28th August, 2014. Updated 7th September 2016; and 19th April 2019.           Image used under license from Shutterstock

 © Larissa Dann. 2014, 2016, 2019.  All rights reserved