Suzanne Zimbler is the executive editor of TIME Edge, the middle school edition of TIME For Kids.
It was one of those parenting moments that stings long after it happens. My 4-year-old had grabbed a toy rocket ship from his 1-and-half-year-old sister. He snatched it away aggressively, almost knocking her over as he darted toward his bedroom. I intervened, telling him to give it back, and he refused.
“I’m disappointed by what you just did,” I said, making sure to state my disapproval of the behavior and not the child, as I’ve heard you’re supposed to do.
The nuance was lost on my son. He looked up at me, his eyes filling with tears. “So you’re not even proud of me?”
It felt like more of an accusation than a question. The familiar flash of parental guilt washed over me. I’d mishandled the situation, said the wrong thing. Now my son was questioning my pride in him, in general. Or was he? It could also be a fleeting thought, I realized. Or even a savvy attempt to disarm me. It is a fact perhaps best understood by the parents of 4 year olds that these children are capable of that sort of thing.
But I continued to wonder about the impact of that moment, and of the accumulation of moments like it. I’d always been wary of building him up too much, but perhaps I’d allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. By often correcting my child’s behavior, was I sending a message that I don’t approve of him, that I’m not proud of him? How much does his perception of my pride in him matter anyway?
As TIME For Kids and KidsHealth.org worked to develop questions for a pair of surveys that examined parent-child relationships, we made sure to address the issue of parental pride. In a survey of more than 8,000 kids ages 8-14, one of the questions we asked was, “Are your parents proud of you?” We also asked more than 900 parents a series of questions, including “Are you proud of your child?” These two questions, taken together, yielded some of the most poignant results in the survey.
We found out that there are plenty of kids who wrongly believe their parents are not proud of them. Even though 82% of parents reported feeling proud of their kids, only 69% of kids said their parents are proud of them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the disconnect is greater for older kids than younger kids. While 78% of parents said they are proud of their 12-14-year-olds, only 58% of kids that age believe their parents are proud of them
Clearly, most parents feel proud of their kids. But being proud and showing pride, it seems, are two different things. And there may be real consequences for failing to express the pride we feel.
When parents feel proud of their kids, and kids know it, the parent-child relationship is likely to be stronger. The survey found that 91% of kids who felt their parents were proud of them also said they felt “close” or “very close” to their parents. Among kids who said their parents are not proud of them, the feeling of closeness was drastically reduced; only 24% of these kids reported feeling “close” or “very close.”
While there may be real benefits to showing kids we are proud of them, D’Arcy Lyness, Ph.D., the behavior health editor at KidsHealth.org, encourages a balanced approach. “Kids live to make us proud. That’s their motivation for doing well,” she says. But she also points out that we shouldn’t be afraid to let kids know when they make a mistake. “You need to be accurate and truthful and help them deal with reality,” she says. “They are going to fail sometimes.”
We all know there are no magic bullets when it comes to parenting. Expressing pride in my son won’t automatically make us closer. But over time, letting him know that I am proud, when it is warranted, could strengthen our relationship. It’s another parenting rule of thumb that I have added to my list.