The other day my son asked me if I was proud of him. I turned to him, looked him in the eye, and I told my son I wasn’t proud of him.
Before you think me an ogre, don’t judge so quickly. I think you might agree with me.
My youngest son, Evan, started rowing last year. He’s really taken to it, which is thrilling. His mother and I have tried all kinds of things to hold his interest: tae kwon do, computer club, acting, karate, and way too many other activities to list. He’s simply never taken to anything enough to really put in the effort.
Until crew (aka rowing). He’s not only found interest in it, he’s made friends and worked hard at it. With so many things that he’s struggled with in his young life, it’s great that he’s finding things that he can connect with.
With all the positive things that have come out of his love of crew you might be wondering why I told my son I wasn’t proud of him. It all comes down to a race and how he placed.
Just over a week ago I was at my son’s regatta. His team had been working hard and they were ready to race. I didn’t know a ton about rowing or how the races worked, but I was there to cheer him on.
As I sat with some other parents somewhat upstream from the finish line waiting for the boats to appear, I hoped for the best but had no way to know how well they would do. We waited and looked at our watches for several minutes. Finally, we spotted a boat. Then we saw another boat just beyond it. As they came closer, we realized that the second boat was our boat!
As they came beside us, we could see the first boat rowing hard, with good form, and determination. We could see Evan’s boat also rowing hard, with good form, and determination. Yet Evan’s boat seemed more determined and powerful. As they continued to row, it appeared they were gaining.
They still had several hundred meters to go so we soon were unable to tell who was in the lead as they passed us by. We waited for a bit and didn’t find out anything until the results were posted.
We looked at the leaderboards when the results were posted, and sure enough, Evan’s boat made it over the finish line first. What we didn’t know is that it wasn’t a simple race, but a timed race; Evan’s boat had left the starting position third, well behind the first two boats, yet their team was first over the finish line. And yet, after all this, I told my son I wasn’t proud of him. Here’s why.
I was thrilled as I took pictures of Evan with his medal. Not only was he first place, but he was much faster than the other boats. Evan had found something that he enjoyed and was good at. My heart was full.
Evan was so happy. He came and hugged me and we sat down on the curb. He talked about the race in detail and regaled me with his enthusiastic recollections. Then he asked me the question that led to an answer he wasn’t expecting.
“Dad, are you proud of me for winning the race?”
“Evan, I’m not proud of you for winning the race.”
He looked at me surprised and mostly stunned. I put my hand on his shoulder and continued.
“I’m happy for you winning the race. I’m proud of you for working so hard and being so dedicated and giving it your best. You’ve really done a great job and it has paid off.”
Evan still hadn’t absorbed what I said. He was still puzzled. So he clarified: “are you really saying you’re not proud of me for winning the race?”
This is when I explained to him what really mattered.
As Evan sat there both understanding that I was proud of his effort and confused that I would not tell him I was proud of winning, I continued.
“Evan, if I tell you I’m proud of you winning, what does that say to you next time if you don’t win? You’ve worked really hard for this. You’ve been dedicated. You’ve exercised. You’ve practiced. No matter how you place, I’m proud of you.
“I’m thrilled that you’ve won! I’m happy for you! It’s awesome! But whether you won or not, I would be equally proud because you worked hard and tried your best.”
It may seem counterintuitive that I told my son I wasn’t proud of him for winning, but it’s important that I did. We often get so caught up in our goals and aspirations that we forget it’s what we do to get where we’re going that’s more important than where we end up.
We should be proud of ourselves and the people we care about for their effort and be happy for them for their successes, remembering that improvement is about determination, not about placement. As Zig Ziglar said, “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”