When my friends boast about their children over and over, I hear, 'My kids are doing great, but perhaps yours isn't,’” Rachel Pappas told me. Pappas is the mother of a bipolar daughter and the author of Hopping Roller Coasters about her experiences raising her daughter. Listening to the accomplishments of others who did not take her daughter’s sensitive situation into account was beyond rude—it was hurtful. Rachel explained: “I was sad and reminded by the constant accolades of other moms that my daughter who I wanted to be happy and to fit in, didn't seem to be either—not happy; not fitting in.”

It is not easy to be on the listening end of all the bragging that goes on, especially from parents. We live in a culture in which most parents strive to raise “star”children; we want them to shine. I’m as guilty as any other parent. However, along with the desire comes incessant reporting: Each time your child does something terrific, you want to praise him publicly. Gushing about your child’s accomplishments seems interchangeable with being a proud parent.

Bragging is on par with eating food and having sex.

A 2012 Harvard study comprised of five brain imaging experiments found that the urge to share information about one’s life is more powerful than previously thought. Researchers found that sharing information about themselves triggered the same sensations in the brain synonymous with eating food and having sex in their subjects. Subjects were offered a financial incentive to respond to questions about other people, but many passed on the money, preferring to answer questions about themselves.

By extension our children are us—even though we know they aren’t or shouldn’t be. Considering how easy it is for our adult egos to get wrapped up in our children’s’ achievements, it makes sense that fulfilling our urge to brag about them is just as satisfying as bragging about ourselves.  The urge to up the wattage of your child’s spotlight sometimes overpowers that voice in the back of your head that tells you, “Stop bragging. You sound annoying.” 

It is one thing to brag to a child’s grandparents or other relatives and people you are sure love your child. It is another, as Rachel Pappas and others know, if your words are hurtful—even if they are unintentional. Consider the people who hear you. Is telling your story signaling superiority in some way? Is it undermining another parent or child? In a New Yorker magazine article about Academy Award Best Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway, Sasha Weiss wrote, “having to temper naked pleasure so as to be thought socially appropriate…is “a problem we all face.”

You may believe you are just being proud, but to others you may come across as over-the-top boastful, competitive, or thoughtless. Looking at areas of brain that were activated in their study, the Harvard neuroscientists discovered why 40 percent of what we say relates to telling other people about the things we think or feel: “Self-disclosure is extra rewarding.” Much like eating food and having sex.


Hotz, Robert Lee. “The Science of Bragging and Boasting.” The Wall Street Journal. 7 May 2012. “http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304451104577390392329291890.html

Pappas, Rachel. Phone conversation and e-mail correspondence, February, 2013. Website:  http://www.1uponcancer.com/rachels-memoir/

Tamir, Diana I., Mitchell, Jason P. “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding.” Cambridge: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2012. Web: wjh.harvard.edu/~dtamir/Tamir-PNAS-2012.pdf

Weiss, Sarah. “Anne Hathaway: In Defense of the Happy Girl.” The New Yorker.  7 Feb. 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/02/anne-hathaway-in-defense-of-the-happy-girl.html#ixzz2MK2bcM5n 

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

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