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Lisa Wilkins / MSNBC
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/10/2007 12:54:49 PM ET 2007-01-10T17:54:49

It's that time of year again to visit with our loved ones, shop 'til we drop and, yes, watch our mailboxes fill up with Christmas letters from all the parents who have given birth to the world’s most brilliant and successful children.

The letters go something like this:

Sara, 8, has the lead in our community play, Aaron, 10, was recently voted the most gifted and talented child in school and now that Emily is 3, she's started reading. Between ferrying the kids around to school, church and extracurricular activities, Beth gave birth to our fourth child in September. He’s already beginning to crawl! Howard has been promoted to CEO of The World. We took three vacations last year to tropical paradises (see attached photos). We are truly blessed, and may God Bless You.

While many families send Christmas newsletters as an easy, friendly and convenient way to keep in touch with a large number of acquaintances, recipients don’t always interpret every message as spreading holiday cheer.

"One year I received a letter from someone who said his child was in the GATE program in school and then he spelled out in parentheses what that stood for so we'd all understand his kid was Gifted and Talented," says Ted Pack, a Modesto, Calif., computer programmer and father of three.

Fed up with all the over-the-top bragging, Pack, who has been writing Christmas newsletters of his own for more than 30 years, started a Web site with tips on how to write tactful, entertaining holiday letters.

We won't mention that DUI
"I strongly discourage bragging because I think everyone, me included, hates the bragging newsletters," he says. "But I also understand it. If one child get the lead in the play and another gets a DUI and 200 hours of community service, which are you going to write about?"

However tempting it is to brag (a.k.a. "highlight the positive"), though, boastful Christmas letters usually do nothing but contribute to the already overflowing pot of destructive "social comparison" that is rampant among parents, says psychologist David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University in Boston.

"Comparing kids starts at age 2 and never seems to end," he says. "Parents compare when their kids talk. They compare sports, grades, schools and on and on. We're a very individualistic, competitive society."

Elkind says many parents buy into the competitiveness so much that they push kids too hard, especially with early academic programs. Being an early reader or mastering the alphabet or numbers becomes material to brag about at the playground, birthday parties or in the Christmas letter.

"Most of the letters are written for the person sending them, not the recipient," says Elkind. "They make the sender feel good about their children, family and themselves."

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Not everyone views this as a bad thing, however.

"I started sending Christmas letters four years ago when I got remarried and had a new baby," says Kathryn Alice, a love and relationships guru in Venice, Calif., who conducts dating seminars around the country. "We have a blended family and I started doing it as a way to present ourselves as a family to the world. I think of it just like a family portrait. Our kids love it."

Alice, who is now the mother of four boys ranging in age from newborn to 17, concedes that she would never focus on the year's negative experiences but she also doesn't feel that letting readers in on her family's achievements and travels is exactly bragging — or taking anything away from anyone else.

"I just view it as a convenient way to catch people up with our lives and what we're doing. It’s also spreading a positive message," says Alice, author of "Love Will Find You." She believes sharing her good news reassures others that they, too, can find happiness.

She always clears what she's writing with her husband and older children first though. "I generally sit down with them and say, 'From my perspective this is what's going on in your life. Is it OK to write that?'"

That's a key step, says developmental psychologist Marvin Berkowitz, a professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

"It's a great parenting practice and it empowers a kid's voice," he says.

Are my parents hypocritical nuts?
Don't be surprised, though, if teens refuse to be written about, he says, and beware the trouble that can ensue if the picture you paint doesn't add up for a child.

"If you want your children to be honest — which, hopefully, most enlightened people would — parental modeling is a critical piece in what kids become. If kids see parents being dishonest — even if it's in a Christmas letter — they're more likely to be dishonest," he says. "They may also think, are my parents nuts? Jerks? In general, they'll probably see you as a hypocrite and devalue you."

Bottom line: Bragging doesn't just annoy and offend others. It also can affect the kids in a negative way.

"The little kids pretty much uniformly love bragging because preschoolers, in the vast majority of cases, have a highly inflated self-esteem,” says Berkowitz. Preschoolers will also generally get their fair share of reprimands so bragging (“Look at how well she paints!” “She’s such a fast runner!”) does little harm.

By the time children get to elementary school, however, their self-esteem is more realistic. The real task for this age and older is to figure out that they can produce quality products and acts. Parents need to be their reality check and let them know where they truly excel, says Berkowitz. If you’re going to talk about their accomplishments at home or the park (with other parents who genuinely seem interested in hearing it), be careful not to exaggerate them.

Also, remember that in general nobody (except maybe The Donald) wins friends by boasting.

“Accomplished and talented people don’t want to alienate others by making them feel inferior,” says John Allen Mollenhauer, a life coach in Maplewood, N.J. So if you really want a winner kid, perhaps you should aim to pass along the fine art of modesty.

Pack says it's OK to focus on some of the family highlights in your Christmas letter, just leave out the obnoxious, boastful bits. Most recipients want to hear how your lives are going overall, what you've been up to, what grade the kids are in and what their interests are. But leave off the details of the report cards and sporting triumphs.

Of course, we all have a select few people for whom we should feel free to pull out all the bragging stops — be it during the holidays or any other time of the year.

"There is something I call guilt-free bragging," Berkowitz says. "That's when there's someone — a grandparent or an aunt and uncle — who truly gets as much or more enjoyment as you do out of your children's exploits. It's perfectly fine to brag to them because they live for this stuff."

Save the hyper-glowing, multi-paged letters for these folks.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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