The XX Factor

It’s Not So Fun to Outdo Your Parent

Emily, you wrote yesterday about the tricky feeling of watching your son outperform you , and finding it discomfiting. But kids can be just as uncomfortable in the surpassing role as the parents are about being bested. My all-girls basketball team used to gather every Sunday afternoon to scrimmage our parents. It was mostly dads who took the bait. One girl’s father was notoriously rough on defense; another had gangly arms no 12-year-old girl could possibly outreach. It was meant to be a fun practice, and our fathers typically let us stay in the game enough to keep our confidence high, while still asserting their ultimate dominance on the score board.

I still remember the day we won. Watching these men bent over during water breaks, out of breath, sweaty, injured-it was devastating. They were our fathers: strong, athletic, unbeatable. But they looked, suddenly, like tired, middle-aged men. It was hard to watch.

You said, Emily, that what you’re supposed to feel when your kid outdoes you is pride. But even that is a complex emotion. Isn’t pride just a way of taking ownership of your kid’s success? My mother seems to think so-she hates the idea of parents telling their children they’re proud of them, or, more specifically, of her own mother saying she’s proud of her. Although I think my mother takes her anti-parental-pride agenda a bit far-often snorting in disgust during the climactic, choked-up line in many a parent/child drama: “I’m so proud of you”-I do understand her basic point that to take pride is to take credit. You wouldn’t say you were proud of some child prodigy you had no part in raising, right? But you think you get to be proud of Eli-his powerful throw, his keen Scrabble mind-because you created him; his achievements are yours to take pride in. But isn’t it possible that what you call pride is really stifled envy-a way of turning that uncomfortable sense of competition into feeling better about yourself?

For my part, I’ll gladly welcome my parents’ pride. But what I really want is for my dad to forever dominate on the basketball court.