Climbing off the Competition Carousel

Catching up on Facebook, I see the kind of post by another parent that used to knock me off my parenting axis and send me into an abyss of panic, convinced my child was doomed to a life of basement-dwelling failure, not because of our child’s shortcomings, but because of our own. While many of our sons’ peers began daily math tutoring and organized sports while still in preschool, we chose a more laid-back style driven by instinct and each child’s level of interest and ability. Yet, as school began in earnest, I frequently second-guessed our choice, especially when it seemed liked other kids were passing mine by. Even now – when I’ve learned to control these thoughts and know not to compare my children and their gifts to anyone else – I read the post and feel a slight catch of fear in my throat. Then, I remind myself that we live best when we celebrate progress rather than pressing for perfection and take comfort in realizing that I am not berating myself for not pushing my kids harder or “giving” them more opportunities to do a thousand-and-one activities.

The post read something like this:

“Phew! What a school year! Lorelei finished 5th grade with top marks! She kept her straight-A status and made the Principal’s Honor Roll while launching her online boutique where she sells hand-painted, upcycled Doc Martens. She donated all the proceeds to the orphanage in Tegucigalpa where she went on a mission trip last summer. Her teachers voted her “sweetest girl” and she made the middle school LAX team! Her brother Lance continues to make us proud, too, of course! Smart like his dad! OH, who am I kidding, we know kids get their intelligence from their mothers! He was invited to skip 8th grade but he loves being a role model for his friends and couldn’t bear to leave them. They’re so lucky! In addition to starting on the lacrosse team this year (he’s been playing since he was 4!), he took several medals in gymnastics this year and he started violin lessons! Now that he’s a multi-instrumentalist and wrote his 5th piano concerto and formed a rock band, he’s thinking of attending Julliard, but we think his straight A’s since Kindergarten suggest Harvard as a better choice, or maybe MIT since he did invent his own programming language. Couldn’t be prouder of our kiddos!”

Blarf!

Thankfully, these days, I know the score. Let’s call it even.

I’ve learned to see posts like these in a couple of ways. It could simply express a mother’s pride in the hard work, natural-born talents,  and choices of her children. Sadly, I often see a parent seeking validation, approval, and affirmation of their parenting choices and maybe a bit of radiated glory from their child’s achievements. And I guess everyone wants that…sort of…but I hate that some parents seek it out at both the expense of their child’s happiness and the self-worth of their friends whose children simply haven’t hit their stride yet or whose accomplishments get devalued in a status-conscious world.

So…if posts like this from your friends or family members send you over the edge into spirals of dread and worry thinking you have failed your child by not pushing them hard enough or not putting them in piano lessons when they were four, come sit next to me. We need to talk.

First, let me assure you, your babies will be just fine.

I know…you worry yourself sick because your 5-year old isn’t reading yet. Maybe your daughter stopped running in the middle of the soccer field during the third game of the season and told you she hates soccer because she doesn’t like being sweaty and it feels like you have 980 more games to endure when your dad tells you that if you let her quit she’ll never do anything. (Meanwhile, your best friend’s daughter was just invited to be on the Elite All-Stars Travel Team for Preschoolers! Joy!) Maybe you need to fight back tears on awards day because all your child only won the citizenship award and you think “Damn! Why can’t my kid earn better grades?” And I need to tell you, “Honey, none of that matters.” 

If I can encourage my fellow parenting pilgrims to do one thing on their journey, I want you to stop comparing your child to anyone else. Your child has his or her own unique gifts and while you may not see those yet, I promise you one day your son picks up Harry Potter and a day won’t pass without a book in his hand until you’ve bought out Barnes & Noble. Your child who hates sweating when she’s four finds her stroke and falls in love with swimming. Your kid with the kind heart but mediocre grades in second-grade finds her groove and on top of managing As and Bs ends up winning the award for most volunteer hours her freshman year. 

Every child blossoms in his or her own time. You can provide all the lessons, all the opportunities, all the tutoring, all the coaching; you can push, prod, provoke, or punish all you want, but your child will flourish when desire, interest, ability, and developmental readiness meet and the magic happens. Push too hard when they’re not ready or simply have no interest in whatever you’re pushing and you’ll wind up with a kid who hates himself, hates you, or both. 

I know, the Tiger Moms out there read this with disdain. And the born and bred Elephant Moms wonder why anyone even needs this advice. Let me tell you why…. This rebukes our cultural norms that define success in terms of status and achievement. Depending on your upbringing, those things can hold a lot of power. My mother raised me to compete with everyone else. She punished me when I got a C in Advanced Placement Algebra 2 because it lowered my class rank. Despite getting a scholarship to attend a private liberal arts school, I remained a disappoint because I didn’t attend a more prestigious school. I know others feel this sense of disappointing parents despite working their hardest. I know from conversations with friends that we constantly feel as if we, and our beautiful babies, get judged by parents who perceive our focus on our children’s sense of well-being and happiness over their GPA or trophy room as a weakness.

None of this means that we don’t expect our kids to work hard or believe they can achieve great things. I simply mean that every kid develops on their own timetable. Neither you nor your child gains anything through worry and comparison. I agree that we all need expectations and someone to believe we have the ability to do hard things. I do not believe in undermining a child’s accomplishments by telling him his hard work is not good enough or pointing out someone else who did something better than your child. Do you really want to undermine your child’s self-worth by not appreciating the beautiful human right in front of you by wishing he was more like someone else’s kid? I do not believe in making kids take lessons or play sports they have no interest in. Do you want to take the magic and wonder out of every day living by sending your little one off to hours of practice each week so that by the time middle school arrives he hates the sport? 

I believe childhood provides the best opportunity for exploration and experimentation to discover our gifts and our passions. Is your child an athlete? An art lover? A dancing diva? Future first chair flautist? Whatever your child loves doing, encourage that interest – even if you have a different vision of her future. 

And when it comes to academics, relax. Barring your child having a learning disability, your kid will catch up. Schools have ridiculous expectations which study after study have shown do not align with developmental readiness. If your child does not read in Kindergarten, try not to freak out. I know that awful feeling when a teacher says she thinks your child needs to repeat Kindergarten…the urge to wonder why your baby can’t read when everyone else in the class can…it feels awful and you need to let that feeling go. As my friend Mary, a retired Kindergarten teacher and mother of 6 sons, told me, “Just ignore her. The kids reading in Kindergarten are no smarter than the rest. They’re just more interested. Everything evens out by third grade. If he doesn’t read by third grade, then you can worry.” I took Mary’s advice and ignored the teacher urging us to make our son repeat Kindergarten because my gut told me it would crush his spirit and make him believe he lacked the intelligence of his classmates. This week my son wraps up his freshman year in high school with straight As in Honors English. We didn’t get him there with prodding, punishments, or pushing. We simply figured out what interested him then spent lots of time with Harry Potter, Hobbits, and lost in comic book stores. 

We live in a hyper-competitive world. Some kids may thrive in that environment. But when a generation of kids experiences greater levels of anxiety, depression, and a teen suicide rate that doubled between 2007 and 2015 to reach the highest level in 40 years (according to the CDC), we might want to rethink our values and how we define success. 

I’m not sure about you, but at the end of the day, I simply want my sons to feel happy and capable. I want them to know the joy and satisfaction in working hard and taking a task to completion rather than simply feeling the fleeting moment of superiority at beating someone else. I want them to experience compassion and empathy, including the feeling of joy in the accomplishments of their friends! And most of all, I want them to know their parents feel pride in the people they have become, not their list of accomplishments. 

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2 Responses to Climbing off the Competition Carousel

  1. Juliet atkinson May 24, 2018 at 7:05 am #

    Well said. And thank you. I had begun that downward spiral of “why can’t my kids be more like….” until I realized I was doing the same thing to them that I’d experienced… God gives us each talents & gifts, & it’s our job to help our kids seek out & build on theirs, not mine.

  2. Natalie May 24, 2018 at 7:28 am #

    Love this! Thanks for sharing and validating that our children will find their own way with our support!

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