By Jane Parent
If you have a high school senior, then you know it’s college application season. For those students who applied early decision, the long wait for college admissions is either over or nearly over. That was pretty brutal, wasn’t it? The waiting, the uncertainty, the angst about where your son or daughter will go and what their future will be. What will you miss most? The college visits, the endless slog of standardized testing, or the exorbitant application fees? Personally, I know what I will miss most: parents bragging about where their kids have been accepted to college.
I know, I know—they’re just excited and want to share the good news with friends and family. But what effect does all this bragging have on us as parents? Does bragging really make you, or anyone else, feel good?
You’ve heard it, too. The outright brag: “Michael has been accepted to Princeton AND Stanford! They’re both so selective, and we’re so thrilled he has such amazing choices.” The humblebrag of the mother who demurely posts each acceptance letter on Facebook as they roll in: “Accepted to Boston College! Another Honors College offer! We’re so proud of how hard you’ve worked, Maddy!” The classic social media post of the fanned out acceptance letters or college brochures showing all of the colleges vying for their student. The photo of the entire family, all beaming in their Harvard t-shirts, holding a candle-bedazzled cake that says “Harvard Class of 2020!” If bragging parents are really without shame, they also post the gritty details of the financial aid packages they’ve been offered—which school is offering the most merit aid, or which gave more in assistance.
Why do we love to brag about our kids? The easy answer is because it feels GREAT. Finally—objective proof that your child is special, and better than that kid Danny with whom he’s been competing since fifth grade. It’s what we’ve been doing since they were born. We’ve been boasting about that amazing newborn head of hair, or that they took their first step at only eight months old, or could identify all their shapes correctly back in preschool. (“His teacher Mrs. Eller says he’s really smart for his age!”) Everyone wants to believe that their son or daughter is special, talented, and unique. You love your kids more than anything in the world and this is an exciting, pivotal, moment in their young lives.
And it appeals to our own egos as well. Sure, millions of other kids are going to college and have the same transcripts and soccer trophies your son does, but your son is going to a more highly ranked college. Take that, everybody else! Author William Deresiewicz in his fantastic book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite,” explains that the madness of the whole admissions process at elite institutions appeals to “the ‘narcissism of small differences,’ the meaningless distinctions that people make to feel superior to those who are exactly like them.” Ouch.
In all honesty, I think bragging parents are, at their core, motivated by anxiety. This whole college admissions craziness makes parents stressed and worried because the stakes for getting into college have gotten so high. In Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, author Frank Bruni argues parents have become convinced “that if their kids didn’t get into the right colleges, they wouldn’t have as bright futures, they wouldn’t make as much money. We somehow bought that this moment in late March, early April, when you find out where you’re going to go to school, sets the whole trajectory for your life. And it’s so untrue and it’s the source of so much unnecessary anxiety,” writes Bruni.
Oh sure, I’ve been lured by the siren song of bragging, too. I used to have a friend I’ll call Mary who bragged incessantly. About her kids’ grades, test scores, and athletic accomplishments. You couldn’t get a word in edgewise. One day out of sheer exasperation, I bragged back about MY son and his test scores. Partly to show her what it felt like, and partly because, well, it just felt good. Thing is, afterwards, it didn’t feel so good. I realized that I had become what I beheld, that I would’ve embarrassed my son, and that it didn’t feel so good later to know that I had not been my best self.
Have A Bragging Rights Pact?
And I also realized that bragging hurts other people in ways I hadn’t considered. When I casually joked that my son has been accepted into his “safety school” (“Whew, at least we know he’s going SOMEWHERE!”), a dear friend responded that particular school was beyond the wildest dreams of her son. I felt terrible for saying it. Similarly, my friend Deb told me once that she avoided our mutual friend Mary because of her incessant bragging. “I love my kids,” Deb said, “but to be honest, my son has a learning disability and sometimes, getting a C is for him a complete victory. When she brags about all of her kids’ accomplishments, things my son will never achieve, I just can’t take it.”
We raise our kids to be kind, considerate, modest, and humble. But then we brag to our friends in ways that would appall us if our kids did it. I think we parents could help make the entire college admissions process a little less crazy if we all took it easy with the bragging. Maybe establish a mutual “bragging rights” pact with a close friend. That way, you can tell each other all the exciting, wonderful acceptance news, without making other parents feel worse. Share the exciting news with the grandparents (to quote Samantha Baker in “Sixteen Candles” “They’re grandparents! They live for that sh*t!”) or your awesome sister-in-law whose kids are still in middle school and is honestly thrilled for you.
Or maybe just tell your son or daughter how proud you are of them. After all, aren’t they are the ones who should really hear it?
Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.