What Kids Taught me about Bragging!

Albino peacock

One of my favourite roles is volunteer ethics teaching at a local government school. I’m called ‘teacher’, but what I actually do is a mash up of facilitator and wrangler with a group of highly expressive 9 year-olds. I provide the framework for the kids to recognise how ethics impacts their lives – then I get to watch them develop their understanding through lots of enthusiastic, boisterous, uninhibited discussion.

One of our recent topics was ‘boasting’. The kids have a very clear understanding of what boasting (or bragging) is. I got each of them to talk about an experience when they’ve been on the receiving end of boasting, and how they felt or responded to it. Importantly, this was one of the rare occasions when the kids actually listened to each other as they individually shared. Of the 22 children, 20 went in the direction of how boasting made them feel  (overwhelmingly ‘less than’); while the other 2 weren’t affected by the boasting, just seeing the boaster as a bit of a dill.

I shared with them a version of something a former colleague had once said to me, being that she is the smartest person she knows. The kids groaned, and within a second rat-a-tatted out a series of responses; three of which were priceless:

  • She’s not as smart as Seamus, who got 21 in ‘Math-Olympics’
  • She mustn’t know many people
  • A smart person wouldn’t say something so stupid.

You can see why I love talking ethics with kids – they're guileless and sweetly protective!

That class got me thinking about why it is that sometimes we feel bad about ourselves after listening to someone brag. Clearly it’s not the *bragger’s intention (the bragger wants acknowledgement for their fabulousness). Yet, when we’re on the receiving end of a brag (no matter how humble the set-up), we can slip into comparing ourselves unfavourably with the bragger's achievement, possibly growing some envy as well.

Conversely, when we hear about someone who’s worked towards an achievement, and quietly shares their pride when they succeed, we can honour his or her success, without inserting ourselves into the story.

So why is bragging a trigger that can set the receiver into feeling ‘less than’, whilst quiet pride does not? I think part of it is that we can unconsciously (and incorrectly) project onto the bragger’s motivations. Whilst they are seeking acknowledgement, or are in love with the sound of their own voice, we might feel that they're also saying that they're ‘better’ than us.

Back to my classroom takeout: 100% of the kids think it’s ok to share achievement; 100% of the kids think it’s not OK to brag; and just 8% of the kids are not triggered by bragging. My unscientific insight from this exercise is that our response to bragging is primal, but something we learn to mask, as we get older.

A more important insight, however, is that if we acknowledge being bragged at can make us feel bad, we are failing a fundamental self-awareness test each time we brag. Also, cool people don't need to brag

* This isn’t about the narcissist or habitual bragger - I’m writing about the garden variety, most of us kind of bragger.

** There’s probably another post to write on how to deal with bragging, but quiet indulgence and private dismissal are probably the healthiest.

Image By Abdominator at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons