Extreme examples often come to mind when I think about what ‘competitive parenting’ looks like. From pushy ex-pageant queens pinning false eyelashes onto tired toddlers, to the unforgiving world of child genius competitions, there’s a sub category of competitive parents who take measuring success to a whole new level.
But there are far more common examples too, many of which slip into our consciousness without much thought as to why it’s happening. How often do we hear the phrase “My daughter got all A’s on her assignments, how did yours do?” Followed by an awkward reply of “Well, mine got B’s, but I’ll get her to resit them all”. And it seems to start pretty early on too, with new parents becoming involved in how quickly their toddlers are meeting their milestones, how their 4 year old is ‘top of his nursery class because he got the most gold stars’ and is ‘so gifted with a violin we’re already applying for the top music schools in the country’ plus ‘look how tall he is, he’s bound to be the tallest in his year’.
This is usually then followed by a disguised interest in how other children compare, and whether they’re anywhere close to ‘beating’ their offspring in the race to become the ‘best combination of human genes ever’.
It’s exhausting, and sometimes we don’t realise how much we engage in it.
I believe that underneath these endless comparisons, are a group of children who, instead of flourishing organically into the people they are supposed to be, are potentially being built-up into confused young adults who may not know the difference between their own wants and needs and the expectations woven into their minds from others.
If this is the case, then for me, mothering isn’t about creating my own version of perfection, but knowing that in life, ‘winning’ really doesn’t mean as much as we may think it does. By building enough esteem in our children to feel secure with sometimes making mistakes, or it not being the end of the world if they achieve less in academics or sport than others, it sets them up for a more balanced outlook, with an ability to explore the areas they do feel interested in without fear of failure or letting someone down.
And if they do thrive in certain areas, whether it be academia, art, or an ability to think outside the box, then gentle and nurturing encouragement could be all that they need to achieve their maximum potential without the burden of comparison. The confidence this builds allows for them to try new things and meet new people without feeling superior or inferior – both of which have the potential to be damaging to not only their own esteem, but to the esteem of others.
And while it may be tempting to show off their talents in national competitions, we can sometimes become so engrossed in our own child’s awesomeness that we lose sight of how unimportant it is that their picture of a lion wins a prize and how important it actually is that they are pleased with their work, and did the best they could.
I remember being just 5 years old, in reception class, and using at least 25 different coloured crayons to colour in a picture of a carousel. It was, admittedly, a bit of a jumble, with nothing remaining inside the lines. The teacher held it up in front of the class, and said it was disgraceful. She made me start again, and said to copy the girl next to me who had used matching colours and drawn nice and neatly. I think the reason I have such a vivid, early memory is because it made me feel pretty dreadful, that copying someone ‘better’ was the only way to meet the teacher’s expectations.
Mindful parenting can simply allow us to take a step back and gather some perspective, and what I can confidently promise my son is that one day when he comes home with a picture he has drawn, whether he has produced a picturesque blend of perfect colouring, or approached it like a drunk Picasso, it’ll be displayed proudly on my fridge, because as long as he’s pleased with it, then I’m pleased for him.