Competitive Parenting

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Parenting can unfortunately be a cut-throat enterprise. If you are not aware of the dangerous practice called competitive parenting then you must not have a child, seen a child, or even better—you probably live on the tippity-toppiest mountain peak in Nepal. In a cave. With a boulder the size of Manhattan blocking the only exit. With a lock on it.

It starts alarmingly early: “Has your baby started kicking yet? Are you reading to your embryo? Are you doing math flash cards with your 3-year-old?” Shenanigans like that.

Over the years I have been a bystander to blatant comparing, bragging, and what not. This annoying and inappropriate practice seems to have been only amplified by social media. When we lived in Iowa, there was a fun run to raise capital for our school district, and as we prepared to watch our oldest run the mile, an interesting incident began as two fathers entered track right.

Braggy Dad: “So” he saunters over to another parent, “How long has your son been training?”

(Training. Training? For a fun run?) I attempt to raise a single eyebrow at that crazy man.

Sane Dad: responds with verbal shrug and the bragger continues on unaware.

Braggy Dad: “MY son (who looks as if his age hasn’t even entered the double digit range yet) has been training for a month. He’s been running something minute laps and *click* (checking his stopwatch) yep, he’s right on track!”

This time I try to raise my eyebrow even higher and attempt a right-left switchback. But I think I looked cross-eyed instead.

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The second instance was later in the same school district when I was setting up for a teacher appreciation luncheon. Some mothers were talking about their sons selling Boy Scout popcorn. It morphs into how much popcorn their sons were selling, how many neighborhoods they were selling popcorn in, and how many thousands of dollars of product they have sitting in their vans that their sons will sell.

Popcorn. Popcorn? For a Boy Scout FUNdraiser?

Why does it even matter? I’m a PTA president AND a runner and I’d rather do anything than hawk product door to door or have my kid train for a one-mile race. Save the occasional “run around the house seven times until you decide to stop acting like a lunatic,” we don’t “train” much.

I am not saying all this to mock braggy dad and popcorn mom; I’m just trying to have us all pause and see why we do it. I am guilty of it occasionally myself. Whom are we trying to parade here? Ourselves? Our kids? Our façade of amazingness?

If we all sat down and hashed it out, we’d find a conglomerate and rotating cluster of reasons. Probably most (if not all) of us don’t intend to look braggy or to initiate a pecking order of a marvelous looking life but what is the intended or non-intended result? I worry that the message to our children could be: you are good when you show outward success. But you—on your own without your grades, athletic achievements and great hair—you’re not enough. You are not enough.

Woman Wearing Red Handkerchief on Neck Holding Black Microphone

To be frank, I don’t feel twelve year-olds are all that amazing. They are learning, struggling and progressing (like all of us) but there’s a whole bus load of stuff they haven’t mastered yet. Probably similar to some of the skills I struggle with: patience, perseverance, charity to those who are unlikely to receive it and a myriad of other qualities we all learn to curate and hone over a lifetime.

I restrain from writing in high school graduation cards, “Congratulations on doing the easiest thing you’ll ever do.” But for their developmental age, it’s huge. As parents it is only natural that we celebrate how far they’ve come. We, more than anyone, remember when we cheered and clapped when they lifted their head up for goodness sake and now they can drive, dissect sentences and decide career paths?  It is huge but not unique. I tell our children how proud of them we are of their effort, their learning from failures and who they are becoming but I don’t tell them how special they are.

When our children have moments of success we congratulate them and when they have moments of failure we comfort them and praise them on learning necessary lessons the hard way. I want them to fail when they are younger and the consequences are not life-altering. I want them to get Fs on spelling tests and homework when they are in third grade rather than in college. I want them to feel the full effect of poor choices and realize that it really stinks but they can do better next time.

In fact, “next time” is one of my favorite phrases to use in discussing poor choices with our children in regards to anger management, friendship, school work, musicality, etc; it all can use a little “next time”. For example: Next time what can you do instead of hitting the daylights out of your sister? I know it’s not fun to feel like you got a grade less than what you expected. What can you do next time?

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And to us adults, I think we all deserve a little next time of our own. Next time, how can you uplift the other struggling and clueless (and we all are) parents around you instead of lifting up yourself? Next time, how can you appreciate the effort and varied skill of all children and not just your own? Next time, maybe ponder afterwards on how your words and actions affect the people around you. After you exit a room or a conversation, are the other adults better off for having you in it or do they feel a bit less than and deflated than before because your child has been portrayed as smarter, kinder or just plain more?

Though I likely will never have the ability to raise one eyebrow sardonically, I hope and find hope in the fact that life is just full of “next times” and I remember that Braggy Dad and Popcorn Mom are learning right along with the rest of us. I hope by now they’ve matured and realized that competitive parenting isn’t really necessary because there isn’t a competition. We’re all on similar paths but there is no race course. We are all learning while we go but there are no grades, no flags, no start or finish line. Now stand down, relax, go back to your cave in Nepal, think on it and decide what your “next time” will look like.

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