It starts innocently enough. Every now and then, women in my neighborhood gather in sunlit kitchens over coffee and sweet rolls, talking lightheartedly of careers and gardening, decorating and cooking, latest novels read, latest movies seen. But after the pleasantries are exhausted, the conversation turns to children – and the chatter turns ominous.
Little by little, the various accomplishments of young children creep into the discussion: high test scores, report-card grades, number of soccer goals scored. It's called bragging. And you had better be good at it if you want to join the conversation. Because woe to the unsuspecting mother who bares her soul to reveal a flaw in her child.
"I have to admit my son is having trouble with math," confessed a pitifully unaware mother at a recent kaffeeklatsch. "I need to sit with him for hours after school helping with his homework."
A hush fell over the table. Coffee cups clinked in the saucers. Sympathetic eyes turned toward the mother and, finally, one woman said, "Gee, I don't have any advice. Homework has never been a problem for my son."
Has that ever happened to you? You tell a friend some horrible truth – your kid got a C in gym – only to have your friend respond that her kid gets A's in gym and in every other subject as well. Or you tell another friend that your 8-year-old son is following you around the house, terrorizing you to buy him a teen-rated computer game. Your friend graciously replies that her son isn't interested in violent computer games. Instead, he spends his days reading Chaucer.
Then there is the shoot-straight-from-the-hip approach: "I can tell you this because you are such a good friend. Our son was just accepted to the school for extremely gifted children, but please don't tell anyone else. I don't want to seem as if I'm bragging."
How do you respond to this confidence – with smugness, because you're such a valued friend, or with envy, because your own son is flunking lower-level math?
It may seem that all of today's children are highly gifted, but this isn't the case. So what do you do if your child is having problems and you find yourself in a crowd of braggarts? Answer: Don't ever admit your child is not doing well academically. You won't get any sympathy. So turn your child's difficulties into an excuse for bragging.
One mom told me her daughter was placed in a class for slow readers because she had such a high IQ. "Her IQ is so high that she is bored in the classroom and can't concentrate on phonics," my neighbor said. Go figure.
You can use the "high IQ" explanation as an excuse for any number of school-related problems: misbehaving in class, bad grades, antisocial behavior, and an inability to play sports. Also, if your child is not doing well in school, you can always say he or she is the "creative" type.
For modest mothers, here are a few "rules" that allow for bragging with the least amount of offense:
•Rule No. 1: Brag to parents whose kids are not the same age as yours. It's OK to boast about your toddler's toilet-training success to someone raising a teenager.
•Rule No. 2: It's OK to brag to mothers whose children don't belong to the same school district.
•Rule No. 3: It's OK to brag to grandparents and in-laws, but only if your nieces and nephews are doing equally as well as your own children. Otherwise, there may be problems of jealously.
And for those moms who think they have nothing to brag about, remember that anything is grist for the boastfulness mill – the ability to tie shoes before the age of 3, reading before kindergarten, a talent for gardening, Suzuki violin lessons, or an interest in the presidential elections. Don't give up. Anything goes.
• Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer. She has two children, both of whom, of course, are extremely gifted.