It may be discreet, it may be buried deep and kept quiet and under control, or it may rear its ugliest head looking straight into the rolling eyes of other parents, but it is there, I see it everywhere and honestly? Yeah, I admit, I see it in myself.
If you think it’s not there, if you think you’ve never cross-compared to other kids, that you don’t care how your child is stacking up against its peers, that you’re not bothered about how much they’re developing and if that’s on track or off track, if you don’t try and spot your child’s strengths amongst its peers, you are lying. All of this is part of parenthood and if you’re honest all of this is a bit down to competitive parenting. But competition is not always bad, competition can be used for good stuff, to encourage, to motivate, to aim higher, further and in new directions.
If you ask any parent what they want for their children, we share the same universal goals; we want them to be healthy, to love, to learn, to have options. After all said and done, after the Furby is asleep and the Toy Story Blu-Ray has been switched off, we really just want them to be happy. That is all. How many times have you said this and thought about it? It’s all any parent truly strives for. And deep down when it comes to getting up onto the life stage as an adult we know that success (on what ever level it may come), is a key part of achieving happiness, and that feeling success (on whatever level it may come), often means doing something different, standing out amongst others, having a skill that’s a cut above the rest, a sharpness, a talent, a knack for something, an ability to own something, be passionate, motivated and carving out ones own journey, taking control of life itself and knowing your purpose in life and getting the feel good from that. All of this is part of succeeding and so we look deep into our kids, and we look early, for, well… anything it would seem. We want to just see something, anything that we can nurture, celebrate, stimulate, anything that may provide us with a clue to or give them a rung towards, their future happiness.
I do not have a problem with any of this. Kids egos are sensitive and I believe in getting them be in tune with their strengths and know what they’re good at – and it doesn’t matter if these aren’t their ultimate strengths or the ones that will emerge as paths they will follow, or tools they will use on their journey into the adult abyss. They should believe, they should feel they are unique and that they are achieving….and sometimes this is as much about experiencing failure as it is about succeeding.
So my problem isn’t a bit of healthy competition, it’s the twists and turns that the competitiveness takes, when it becomes less about a healthy weighing up of strengths and bursts of pride when you see those traits and skills in all their glory, but when it becomes about control, disappointment, false or high expectations, pressure and bitterness. This does not come from our children, this comes directly from us. Given my eldest is only 4 I feel like I’ve already seen way too much of this around. I find it quite strange and a bit creepy. We are obsessed with our kids success in a way that gets warped.
The first face to face encounter I had with competitive parenting came at Phoenix’s gymnastic class. He had another little boy
who he loved to be in the class with, they would turn all the moves into super hero tricks and have a really good time, they messed about a bit, but at a level I would describe as ‘tolerable’. But the teacher got fed up with them (they did kind of stand out amongst the very calm girls in the class), and she decided to move his friend onto another class. The next week his mum was acting really sheepish around me and eventually she informed me of the situation in a very serious manner:
‘The instructor thinks he has real potential, she wants to move him up to the advanced class. I just think he doesn’t concentrate properly with phoenix in this class and if he really concentrated he could really reach his potential. He needs to concentrate on his gymnastics, we’ve been having chats with him about it, last week he was fine this week he’s just all over the place, I think the advanced class will really give him the push he needs.’
My god. I was completely blown away by this.
They were three at the time.
I think I actually laughed because it just sounded so ridiculous, the blazon truth was this: neither of them had ‘potential’. Neither of them were going to the olympics. Now, I’m no gymnastic expert (I dread to think what would happen attempting the splits these days), but even I can tell you that they are not natural gymnasts. Between the two of them they were lucky if they did a forward roll without doing a blow off or ending up on their hands instead of feet. But give a modern competitive parent the slight whiff of a road to early success and they go loopy.
We started Phoenix at gymnastics because he has amazing coordination and thought it would be good for him to develop this (good competitive parenting! yay for me!)…and in truth because I thought it would be really cool if he could learn some moves he could later use to impress people (bad competitive parenting! damn it.) I wanted him to learn how to balance and also how to follow instructions as these are helpful skills to have nailed down before school (good competitive parenting!) but malignly because i thought it would be pretty cool to have a kid that backflips (bad competitive parenting!).
But honestly backflips aside, I did just really want him to do stuff, to try things, to meet people and to be active. So when his friend got whisked away to a career in gymnastics to train for his olympic gold on wednesdays at 4pm (because he was like so over the tuesday class) I felt a bit funny, and as a result I acted a bit funny.
Although I knew why she’d done it, I felt a bit miffed, and when I was telling Ben about it I found myself having to really overly justify and explain why she’d done it, that it was about splitting them up, not of course about a difference in ability! HEAVEN FORBID! I kept adding footnotes to the story such as, ‘anyway he’s nowhere near as good as Phoenix on the beam, so I know she’s not really doing it because of that’ before quickly shuffling off to chop a cucumber in embarrassment to brush over it (yep that’s exactly what i was doing. I have a photographic memory you know)…..Bad, bad, bad competitive parenting! See, it just comes out! Because part of me, as ridiculous as it is, still wants it to be Phoenix that was moved up! I have no rational, I know it’s bonkers, it’s just a feeling.
All of this is of course mostly me just being a bit bonkers out of ear shot of any child or other parent (chopping a cucumber), but when it comes into the social sphere its excruciating. When I overheard two mums at school having a really polite disagreement about which of the four Thomas’s in the class were going to get the privilege of being called just ‘Thomas’ without having to have an initial after their name, I was ready to smash my face on the whiteboard.
It is in all of us, I really believe that, but then some of us are just plain old prats.
Being a mum having a kid amongst social media perfection can be fun and friendly or hellish and intimidating. Everywhere you look there is a perfect life, someone doing something better and more effortlessly that you are. If there is one thing to come out of this blog post I implore you do this, just take an instagram of a moment that is the opposite of perfection, that is not about success, show the bad and the ugly #successless (and tag me in! @mummamartin)
…..FYI in case you’re wondering, that other child shortly quit the advanced class after he was moved up. One year on Phoenix still goes to gym. He is now in advanced class, and can do a full forward roll, sometimes two in a row and aometimes without doing a blow off. No sign of a back flip….