Thursday, June 07, 2007

Competitive Parenting: A Piggyback

M opened the bloggy door with her post on competitive mothering, and I just had to throw my thoughts in the mix. Although M seems to limit her discussion to mothering, I think there's sufficient evidence (i.e. "My boy can run that ball up the field faster than your boy" says Crazy Football Dad #1 to CFD #2) to show that this isn't exclusively a Mommy thing, which is why I discuss it in terms of parenting generally.

As anastasia suggests in the comments and M’s own post implies, the answer to the question of "why do parents compete?" is: our children are reflections of us. Not in reality, of course, but parents often feel that way. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we (parents) mold our little one(s) based on what we think is right, good, and/or in their best interest. So, when we compare our children's latest marker of success, we might as well be seeing which parent can win the rock-tossing contest (to be polite). However, when someone criticizes, questions, or compares our decisions as a parent, they might as well be driving a stake through our hearts. Indeed, a questioning of our child’s development (or lack thereof) is the equivalent of questioning our own intelligence and morals: it’s personal, damn it! Or so it would seem. It doesn’t have to be this way though. It takes a conscious effort to avoid the temptation of competitive parenting, and there are many times when I slip (like the time I shouted to H “Push her back!” at a spring soccer game, in which the girls from the other team were seriously playing dirty and totally getting away with it). Hey, nobody’s perfect! And even though I’m generally an Alpha personality-perfectionist, this is one area where I have to force myself to think before I speak (or worry, get upset, or compare). A few things to note:

1) It’s not about *you* (the universal “you,” that is): Parents rarely "get" a child to perform a benchmark action (sitting up, crawling, walking, talking, etc.). Rather, the *child* is responsible, and mom and dad are there to help along the way. Help is all we can do, though, because if the child isn't developmentally ready, then she just isn't ready - no matter what parents do. And it is neither a failure on the part of the parents OR the child.

2) The first one is the Practice Child: From my own experience, it gets easier after the first child, who I (unoriginally) term The Practice Child. When my first child was born, I constantly compared my oldest daughter, H, to all other babies her age. She was the fattest, healthiest baby in the group. She never even had an ear infection until she was 2! But, even at 7-months old, she didn't sleep through the night. I tried adding cereal to her bottle once I switched to formula, and she didn't sleep one minute longer. She just wasn't a sleepy baby, and she was never a napping kind of toddler either. Eventually, I just had to realize that I wasn’t in control of her developments, and this was part of her own very unique physiology and personality. It still is. No matter how late she stays up, she's up, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to go early the next morning.

3) Let it go: With my (new) baby, everything has been completely opposite from H. She’s not the fattest baby in our “circle of baby-having friends,” she’s been ill more often than H was, and she’s not crawling yet. But this time around, I seriously don’t care. She is her own little self. She’s not any one of the other babies I know, so I really, truly don’t care what she can/can’t do in comparison with them. I’m also genuinely happy for the developments that my friends’ babies have made, as those milestones represent really happy moments for those moms and dads. Letting go of the competitive, pissing-contest attitude I had when my oldest daughter was younger has left me feeling…well, free. I feel like I’m free to live in the moment – in each moment – with both my girls because I’m not worrying about the next milestone each one needs to reach. With E, she’ll crawl when she crawls. Nobody gives a Big Blue Ribbon to the baby (or the parents of the baby) who crawls first. Similarly, nobody gives a Big Dunce Cap to the baby (or the parents) of the baby who’s last to sleep through the night. Honestly, the babies could care less, and isn’t it supposed to be about them anyway?

4) Do you really want to be *that* parent? Also known as the Helicopter mom/dad, the Hoverer, Crazy Soccer Dad, and the list goes on, competitive parenting can get nasty (see this post). I personally don’t ever want my children to *not* think for themselves, be responsible for themselves, and praise *themselves* for their accomplishments (not me). As a college instructor, I’ve seen what kinds of kids are produced by competitive parents, and they are truly some of the worst students. Seeing my children do well will bring me happiness, no doubt. But seeing my children do well because *they* made it happen (not me) will mean that I’ve done my job.


Jeani said...

Thanks! This is so appropriate for me today. I needed to hear it. My MIL made a point of telling me one of her friend's granddaughter was in a dance recital last week. She's 3. ChaosGirl is 3. MIL wanted to know if we were thinking about dance classes or tumbling or whatnot and was prepared to foot the bill. I don't care what her friend's granddaughter does. I like my MIL but it still grated on my nerves.

ChaosGirl is not ready to start into anything like that yet and I don't have time to research 15 bazillion studios/schools to find one that's not focused on competition and performing. She can play soccer and take swimming lessons next year when she's 4 if she wants to. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to vent and know I'm not alone. :-)

M said...

You're right--it is personal. And for me, it isn't about what S can or can't do. As you rightly put it, he is the one in control, so to speak. But on some level, I do feel like it is a reflection on me that he still isn't sleeping through the night. Ironically, I take no credit for the stuff he has supposedly done early--I certainly didn't get on the floor and teach him to crawl. But with the things he struggles with (and as anastasia pointed out in her comment on my blog, sleeping through the night is a big thing to struggle with), I take them much more seriously and wonder if I've done something to impede his progress in that area. I think I nurse him too much, I let him sleep near me too often, and any number of things. Some of which may affect whether he sleeps through the night, but I'm learning that the fact that he doesn't sleep through the night isn't a reflection on me as a parent. He is happy, healthy, and well adjusted, and I think those are much more important than sleeping through the night.

wwwmama said...

Nice post. I've been reading _Perfect Madness_ and it definitely hits on this issue. I'll have to post about it when I've thought more about it.
I try to avoid the competition by reminding myself that some of the best lessons I've learned in life came from figuring things out as I went--not having my parents hand-pick colleges or help me with my applications, for instance, even though I'd been sent through advanced classes and prepared for the idea of college. I spent much of my childhood living rurally, never going to scheduled activities or classes but literally roaming the fields most days, and I can't imagine a better way to grow up. And I'm still a productive, successful person. I want my kid to be successful, but I define success in a variety of ways; it's not just about measurable achievement such as one's income or IQ or other stats.

GayProf said...

I never plan to have children, so it is all moot to me.

Still, some of my good friends are crazed with their first child. Two couples I know had a baby at the same time. Rather than being about support, they are engaged in some sort of of bizarre compare and contrast. It's as if there can be only one baby and they are jocking to make sure their's wins the title.

I just drink and laugh.

wwwmama said...

Ha Ha. That's funny, GayProf. I think we all need to have a drink and relax about it all. There is something about having gotten through the first child (or the first years of the first child), like AcadeMama is saying, that makes you less vulnerable to all the crap.