Community and Competitive Parenting

English: Athletics tracks finish line

Athletics tracks finish line (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor gives the news each week from the township of Lake Wobegon, where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.’

It’s not just Lake Wobegon. Some friends of ours observed the amusing number of parents around them who considered their offspring to be very advanced. So in a spirit of friendly satire they taught their daughter the following party trick at about 15 months.

‘Where’s your nose?’

[She cutely points to her nose.]

‘Where are your ears?’

[Hands go to her ears.]

‘Where’s your cricothyroid membrane?’

[Hands shoot to her throat and all adults in vicinity crack up.]

She was very advanced, as we often chortled.

We’re poised to teach SBJ something similarly hilarious, but he’s only just mastering waving, so it’ll be a while before we get to anatomy lessons.

I’m not terribly surprised, but I have found it a huge struggle not to focus too much on how quickly/on time/late our boy reaches developmental milestones, and where he is on the various graphs in our Plunket book.

I am of course squealingly excited whenever he does anything new (and a lot of the rest of the time too). There’s no way around that and nor should there be. But I’m also inclined to give in to unseemly pride or worry depending on whether he’s doing it before or after the average, and I don’t like that.

At this point, some of you lovely folks will probably want to tell me to lighten up and just carry on adoring my little boy. Well, quite. But here are the two problems I’m concerned about, as a matter of general observation.

Comparing our kids to graphs leads swiftly to comparing them to other kids. And this competitive milestoning brings bragging and resentment that we could all do without in our friendships.

And every minute we spend studying the graphs or the other kids is a minute our adoring gaze is off our children. I guess I want to let SBJ himself be the centre of my celebrating. I can adore him without telling the world why. I can delight in him without reference to curves, graphs and timelines.

I’m convinced of two things:

a) It means very little at what age a baby walks or waves or wees on a potty. No university application will ask.
b) We parents need to form a community for each other, not a competitive league table.

I’ve been very lucky in my community. My friends with young children have been unfailingly encouraging and supportive and delighted with my boy. And I have been delighted to get to know their children and take them on their own terms. It’s a real joy to get to love and celebrate other kids as well as mine, and I’m lucky to get to do so.

When I was first pregnant, my husband and I thought a lot about what we wanted to emphasise in our parenting. What were our priorities for any child we might welcome into the family?

We decided that, ahead of anything else, we really wanted to help God help our boy become wise and kind. If we could make an impact in only two areas, those are our picks. (Magic came a close third.)

Which helps me get the walking and talking stuff in perspective. So what if SBJ is late or early at sitting or clapping or lying still for nappy changes (although nailing that last one would be much appreciated).

He might be sporty or smart or popular. He might struggle at literacy or juggling or public speaking. But what we need to reserve serious excitement and pride for, or what we may need to spend extra time fostering, are signs of growing wisdom and kindness.

Paul Windsor, the Principal when I was at theological college, makes it practice never to ask ministers ‘how big’ their church is. The number of bottoms on pews is only one measure of the health of a church, but it tends to be a source of angst or pride way out of proportion with its significance.

So I am trying also to make it a practice never to ask a parent about milestones. ‘What are you enjoying most about this stage?’ and ‘What are her favourite things?’ are my standbys instead.

Inspired by Glennon Doyle Melton at Momastery, I’m also trying to adopt her practice of not announcing any achievement or milestone to anyone other than SBJ’s grandparents, godparents and uncles and aunts without children. (To them, we never shut up.)

Please click through and read Glennon’s post if you’re interested in this whole area – it’s a very thoughtful and inspiring position.

Amormaterno, Anchise Picchi, 1989 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I need a lot of practice at these practices. So here I am saying them out loud. I’m aiming to make them a lot more instinctive, so I can keep my adoration focused on my gorgeous baby boy and keep my friendships crammed full of mutual support and shared celebration.

When adults get together, perhaps we’d find it easier to avoid the bragging-resenting traps if we could just fill our conversations with a few honest admissions of the hard stuff (parenting or the rest of life) and a few more supportive compliments to each other. We’re all brilliant and amazing, after all, right?

What are some of the most helpful, encouraging, supportive things other parents have said to you?

How do you help foster confidence in parents you know?

Ideas, please!

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0 comments on “Community and Competitive Parenting”

  1. Alex Reply

    Gosh, yet another well-written, thoughtful piece. I have to confess, though, that on first reading it left me feeling a wee bit inadequate. Thoughtless, even, for not having pondered these questions more thoroughly before.
    Confession: I do post on FB sometimes when I’m proud of my kids. Or when they’ve said something funny. Not always – that would be ridiculous – but quite often. Too often, probably. Certainly more often than I’d ever intended to. That could probably be interpreted as bragging, or of comparing my kids to everybody else’s. It’s not meant that way, though, and I hope my friends know that.
    Just as I know your piece was certainly not meant to make anybody feel inadequate… Which makes me think, maybe there’s a lesson somewhere there for all of us to try harder to take things more in the spirit in which they’re intended? I’m sure there are genuinely some super-competitive parents out there, but I’m sure there’s many more who are just genuinely delighting in their children, and would be just as delighted to hear about yours. Not in the spirit of competition, but of sharing. I don’t want to just talk about the bad times, or how hard it is, though I acknowledge the usefulness of doing so sometimes. Sometimes I do just want to shout about how great my kids (and yours!) are.
    Sorry, I’ve probably missed your point and taken this off on a bit of a tangent… Will stop here!

    • Alex Reply

      Addendum:
      I was pondering on this further on my walk to pre-school and back and there’s something else I’d like to get off my chest. (sorry!)
      I do acknowledge the dangers of praise and the degree to which we need to be careful about being clear what it is we’re praising (hard work over results, for example) but I think the flip side is worth bearing in mind too. I actually hear (and read) far more parents disparaging their children, complaining about what “little monsters” they are and how much of a handful they are, than praising them to the skies, and that seems to me to be a shame. There seems to be almost an inverse competition going on sometimes. Again, I realise this sort of thing can be useful and necessary, and that it’s helpful for parents to have outlets and to realise that they are not alone in having these feelings, and hopefully to thereby realise that their children aren’t the only ones behaving in this way and therefore aren’t really monsters… But I do think – certainly as our children get older and more aware – we need to be careful about how much of this they hear. I would far rather my children hear me praise them to my friends than complain about them. I’m acutely conscious that I’m not always good at remembering this, but that’s something (else) for me to work on.
      And now, having wandered well away from the original point of your post, I really will stop!

      • not a wild hera Reply

        Gosh, Alex (this is the comment written second, to respond to your second – not sure if they’re nesting correctly), I SO AGREE WITH YOU!

        I hate hearing parents speak like that about their kids. There’s honesty, sure, but there’s also unwise, poor language that does nothing to help anyone.

        And I think you’re right. We could throw out my two new practices entirely and replace them with ‘Let’s all praise all our children (our own and each other’s) all the time and thoroughly enjoy them all.’ Which would do the same job and be more fun. Let’s go with that.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Couldn’t agree more with you, Alex, and I think all your reactions are fair and right. I rewrote this piece substantially, several times, to try and be clear about what I was and wasn’t saying, but I don’t think I quite caught it, and your comments add necessary things.

      Facebook is a case all of its own and needs an entire series of posts :) I think your posting is fab, for what that’s worth – like all your friends, I love seeing your excellent photos of your gorgeous children, and hearing all their news. But you don’t tend to say, today Little G was the first child in the village to learn to ice-skate…

      I’m really sorry there was a flavour of telling-off in the post. There certainly wasn’t any aimed at you! I agree with you In Capital Letters about taking things in the spirit they’re intended – thanks for doing that here, and talking about it too.

      As you say, there are some competitive parents, and many more friendly ones – thank goodness, and thank God.

      I guess I have in my mind a lot at the moment the third sector, of vulnerable parents, who are most likely to find comparisons and competitive conversation painful. I think they’re a silent minority, and they’re ones who will just stop coming to playgroups for fear of feeling judged or inadequate, and who will avoid Facebook if they get the impression that everyone else is finding life so much sunnier than they are. PND, of course, is in my mind, and many nervous first-time parents, and any with kids who are ill or special and outside the curve.

      It’s a very fine balance I’m aiming for, of course, and I’ll get it wrong lots, depending on who’s in earshot – which is where the gracious listening you’re talking about comes in.

      And for the avoidance of doubt, I love hearing about your family (and even subscribe to your Blip feeds to get more news) and want to hear more, not less. I guess it’s about tone, not amount. So keep up the news, please!

      • Alex Reply

        Thalia, thank you – you are unfailingly generous in your responses, which (re-reading in the light of a new dawn) I’m not sure I really deserved. While we’re in the business of avoiding doubt, let’s be clear that it wasn’t at all that I felt you were telling me off, or that there was anything wrong with what you wrote. On reflection, I think my responses were more directed to the Momastery blog than your own. But in any case, I think far from being gracious, my initial response – as it often is, to be honest – was quite a self-centred one about how your words related to me (“why didn’t I think about what kind of parent I’d like to be when pregnant?” “do I brag about my children?” etc). I think it was just being conscious of that response made me think that perhaps those times when it feels like others are bragging may in fact have more to do with how I receive their words rather than their words themselves. That’s all.
        I absolutely agree with you that we should all try to be aware of how our words may affect others, particularly vulnerable parents (by which I really mean all of us, but especially new parents). I am certain that I have had more than my fair share of foot-in-mouth incidents! Looking back, though, I think what felt like competitiveness was much more apparent first time round. Certainly when I sat in various baby corners with my second child, I heard a lot of first time parents desperate to fit their child and their experiences onto the curve, but to me it all sounded much more like exercises in self-reassurance than bragging. There was one mum there whose child had been born with certain difficulties, but the other mums – in my experience – were always acutely aware of her situation and quick to offer what they could by way of support and reassurance. Maybe, like Caroline, I’ve just been lucky so far. Who knows how it will pan out when we get into the world of parents’ evenings and report cards at school!..
        Like you say, it’s all a fine balance. And yes, let’s leave FB for another time! But before I go I would just like to echo Caroline and say I would LOVE to hear more about what SBJ is up to – that hide and seek example is just brilliant! 😀
        Much love to all three of you x

  2. Daina Reply

    If only everyone had your attitude Thalia! The competitive parenting drives me nuts too – call me crazy but I don’t think that being toilet trained at 9 months makes for any more worthwhile or successful a person in later life (or that the parent is a better parent and I suspect that is where most of this comes from) and I wish parents would stop treating these milestones like they are a competition! My kids do some things early, some things average and some things late – and all of that is A-OK with me. The couple of times our plunket nurse has been concerned about a milestone not being reached at the time the book says it should be, I merely ask that we get an extra appointment 3 months later so she can reassess. Every time my boys have caught up by then without me pushing them, I figure that they will do it when they are ready – after all you don’t see many school kids who can’t sit up or talk do you. I love celebrating with my friends when their kids reach milestones – those parents who are genuinely proud and want to share in that spirit. I really have an issue with the ones who manage to say “hey guess what, Bob is standing now” with a tone that implies that because your baby wasn’t standing at 3 months, that there must be something wrong with them (or you as a parent). Even as babies and toddlers you can see that a lot of kids have particular strengths, it might be words, or physical capability, or being empathetic & kind to others – this doesn’t mean that they are failures in other areas though because they find it more difficult. I love watching my kids & my nieces/nephews as some of them do show quite pronounced strengths and I am fascinated to see where that takes them in life. Will the one who has incredible vocabulary go on to work in a field that involves language? Will the ones who adore animals carry that on to later life? Will the ones who developed motor skills earlier be better at sports when they are older? As for my personal philosophy for myself and my kids, wisdom has always been at the top of the list followed closely by empathy & generosity. When I see one of my children demonstrating those qualities it makes me tear up, and that confirms to me I am doing a good job – not because the kindy teacher has praised my kids literary skills, or because one of my boys drew a great picture or won a race. Achievements are nice, and we celebrate those too, but character is so much more important. It worries me the kind of pushy, selfish, put-others-down, win-at-all-costs mentality that some parents seem to be modelling to their children. Yes we all want our children to be successful (however you define it), but I never want that to be at the expense of others. I want to model genuine delight at others achievements, sharing, kindness and acceptance of differences to set my kids up for a happy, contented & fulfilled life filled with honest supportive relationships. Ramble over.

  3. Caroline Reply

    Wise words from everyone. We definitely need to support each other rather than get into one-upmanship. I think bragging is partly in the ear of the listener though. I love hearing what friends’ little ones are up to and all about their latest achievements. I might be lucky in the people I speak to, but I rarely notice bragging – maybe I just assume they are “sharing” rather than “bragging”! I, for one, would love to hear what SBJ is up to and doing these days.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Caroline, thanks for this. You’re quite right, as is Alex – most people are indeed just sharing and not bragging and I don’t want to stop any of that.

      Being able to express our delighted sharing in decidedly non-competitive non-comparative terms is all I want to encourage, I guess.

      As for our news: SBJ and his father just popped in at half-time in a game of proto-hide-and-seek. I’m not completely positive who’s having the better time. They were both giggling.

  4. Jody Kilpatrick Reply

    My sister in law once read the suggested comeback “I guess you just love your child more than I love mine” in response to any sort of bragging/one-up-parentship. I’ve never said it but I’ve thought it with a grin on occasion.

    Like others I LOVE hearing about what my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids and friends’ nieces and nephews etc etc are up to. My favourite conversations about kids are in depth ones – not milestone mentioning but proper discussion of what a child is doing, saying, and our speculation on what it all means to them :)

  5. Pingback: Magic Words #1: Be Thoughtful about that Sheer Drop « sacraparental

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