‘Tis the season of college applications for our youngest child and so I find myself doing battle again with a foe I thought vanquished long ago when our kids were toddlers: the competitive parent.
Everyone has met this person. This person’s child always manages to stay one or two rungs above your child on the developmental ladder. This person’s child was fully conversant at nine months, walking at seven months, potty-trained at six months, crawling at four months, sleeping through the night since birth and writing computer code in utero. This person’s child has never thrown a tantrum, never wet their pants in the midst of a crowded store, never met a vegetable they didn’t like, sailed through the teen years with nary a squabble, and has MIT for a safety school. This person’s child does not exist.
Oh, they will put on a convincing case. They will state that their doctor will testify that she is astounded by the developmental marvel that is their child. Off the charts, they will intone knowingly. The likes never before seen by man nor beast. Then, with a sympathetic nod of the head and a soft “there, there,” they will tell you not to worry, that your child will accomplish the feat in question “soon.” They particularly like to prey upon first time parents. More experienced parents tend to mock them and beat them senseless with their fanny packs.
Do not believe the competitive parent. They are lying. Deep down, we know this. Yet we still rush home to our three month old who is lying in a puddle of her own drool, happily chewing on her fingers, and we command, like Jesus to Lazarus: “Arise and walk!” Seized by the moment and the clear authority in our voice, our child catches our eye, smiles, and spits up the bottle she just finished drinking. On a roll now, she then begins to emit an aroma reminiscent of two-week old garbage.
One evening, not long after our son, our oldest of three children, was born, I was watching a program where a person was attempting to show how intelligence levels of different dogs could be measured with a couple simple exercises. One of the exercises involved placing a small blanket over the dog’s head and measuring how long it took the dog to remove the blanket. I don’t remember which dog won, but I figured my son could beat his time. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a hand towel. After a few words of encouragement, I placed the towel over my son’s face and began counting. I’m not going to reveal my son’s exact time, but, suffice it to say, the poodle lapped him.
Concerned that my son had just failed the doggie IQ test, I gingerly broke the news to my wife. She ignored my concern and yelled at me for covering her baby’s face with a towel. Mothers are like that. So my son and I began an intensive training session. Anytime my wife was in the bathtub or out of the apartment, I would grab two hand towels: one for him and one for me. And we’d race. My son’s time didn’t improve much, but, after several tries, I kicked that poodle’s butt.
The competitiveness only worsens as your child begins to play with other children. A couple we know is the perfect example of competitive parents. Their eldest daughter was about the same age as our son. Somehow, she was always six months and several developmental stages ahead of our son. When he first sat up, she had qualified for the Boston Marathon. When he first said “Da-da” (to me, not the couch), she had just finished her first aria. He knew where his bedroom was. She could list all fifty state capitols in alphabetical order. Losing to the poodle was one thing, but this girl was really starting to tick me off.
Then, one day, our son and this girl played together. We waited for the four-minute mile. Nothing. We waited for the lilting soprano we had been promised. Nothing. Being the loving, caring adult that I am, I began taunting her. “Capitol of North Dakota…go!” She hit me with her bottle.
Her parents tried to cover. “She’s usually so outgoing,” they said. “We don’t know what’s wrong with her today.” Their meaning was unspoken, but obvious. Your, shall we say, defective child is obviously having a deleterious effect on our precious prima ballerina/savant. I could read their thoughts. Your son’s pedestrianness must be catching. Let’s get our daughter out of here before she becomes a turnip.
But we knew the truth. We had just discovered the second part of competitive parenting. First, they lie about their child’s unprecedented exploits. Then, when their child fails to live up to the advance billing, they blame your child. Their wondrous gift from the gods was just fine until associating with riff-raff like your children. Not that they blame your children, mind you. Your children are, after all, doing the best they can in their own quaint, limited way. But if their child is going to associate with yours, they really will need some sort of protective clothing. Or a vaccine.
We thought we had banished this whole nonsense. It’s not that parents became less competitive over the years, but, as our children aged, things were easier to measure and so competitive parenting became more patently ridiculous and easier to ignore. Yes, I know, your child’s a musical prodigy, but Mozart’s blowing in the wrong end of the tuba.
But, as we stare into the uncharted future of a graduating child, the same doubts start to creep back in from when they were born and everything was unknown. What will they do? How will they respond? Whom will they become? The competitive parents smell this weakness and soon you’re buried in Facebook posts and Insta-Snap-Tweets of the blazing successes their child achieves with no effort.
And you start to worry again. And I find myself timing that freaking poodle again.
It’s tough to avoid competitive parenting. We want our kids to be bright, caring, loving, funny and successful. And we want them to kick that prima ballerina/savant’s butt. We’re all better off, however, if we just relax a bit. Certainly our kids are. That’s not to say that we don’t become actively involved in educating them and helping them become the best they can be, but we also can’t forget that “kid gloves” are called kid gloves for reason. We need a softer touch than we often see nowadays.
Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician, once said “give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” He was speaking of the value of levers and their ability to move great objects, but it’s just as applicable to our kids and this whole competitive parenting thing. If we clear the field for them as best we can and give them a strong base of love and knowledge upon which to stand, our kids will move the earth on their own. Heck, my three kids are already smarter than me, so I’m just along for the ride from here on out.
So, I am proud to say that, having exposed competitive parents for the frauds they are, my wife and I have completely resisted the urge to measure our children against others and have never belittled the accomplishments of any child, which is very difficult, because our children are so much brighter than theirs.
By the way, Bismarck.