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 their accomplishment.

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?

Here are 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 – adult first, then child, to help illustrate this point: 

Manager:        ‘I’m so 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?

Parent:            ‘I’m so 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?’ 

Now - 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.  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 replication, the response may be rather different than the first. ‘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.

This may result in adults who rely constantly on others for validation, unable to take pride in who they are and what they have achieved.  They may search for praise and acknowledgement 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. 

Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) is a peaceful, gentle approach to parenting, that teaches respectful communication skills.  PET 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.

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!'
  • 'You must be so proud!'
  • 'I’m proud for you'
  • 'I’m so pleased for you'
  • 'You look really pleased with your effort'
  • 'Congratulations!

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. 

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.

Personally, at times I have to consiously stop myself as ‘I’m so proud of you’ is about to trip off my tongue.  I believe the effort has been worth it – for my children, and our relationship.

28th August, 2014 (updated 7 September, 2016)   Image used under license from Shutterstock

 © Larissa Dann. 2014, 2016.  All rights reserved