Hanging around at the afterschool pick-up door or on the sidelines of a soccer field, at a PTA meeting or even an extended family gathering, maybe you’ve heard other parents chatting about their children’s activities or accomplishments or fretting about how hard it is for kids to make it into a certain team, choir, or school. And maybe this chatter has caused you to wonder, “Am I doing enough as a parent?”
Most parents care deeply about doing a good job raising their kids. We love our children, and we spend a lot of time and effort caring for them, but then we have to wait about 25 years to see how they turn out! So, it’s tempting to make those comparisons with other parents and other children to try to get some reassurance that our kids are “on track.” Whatever that means.
To make things even more complicated, the definition of what it means to be a “good” parent has expanded tremendously. In my grandmother’s day, she thought she was doing a good job if her children were reasonably clean. My mother could pat herself on the back if her children were fairly obedient.
But nowadays, parents are told that they are responsible for fostering their children’s success in a wide range of areas: academic, social, musical, athletic, spiritual, artistic, etc. Many parents are afraid to do anything less than everything possible to ensure their children’s success (while also worrying about not being a tiger mom or snow plow parent or whatever the parent insult du jour is).
This “concerted cultivation” of children can lead to a sense of competition that hurts both children and parents.nIt makes parents feel anxious, inadequate, and critical of their kids. When parents feel anxious about how they or their children will be evaluated, they tend to behave in more controlling ways (e.g., Grolnick et al., 2007), which says to kids, “I have no faith that you can succeed on your own!” And children who perceive higher levels of criticism from parents also report more feelings of depression and anxiety (e.g., Luthar et al., 2006).
At its worst, competitive parenting puts tremendous pressure on children, because the underlying message to kids is: “You need to achieve in order to prove that I’m a good parent.” What a terrible burden to put on the shoulders of a child.
It takes conscious effort to resist the pull of competitive parenting. We need to recognize that our children are not lumps of clay to be molded. They are each unique constellations of strengths and weaknesses, interests and aversions. They are shaped not just by us, their parents, but also by their own choices, experiences, and other relationships.
Here are some practical ways to avoid being pulled into competitive parenting:
– Go to your high school reunion
Some of your former classmates who were unexceptional in high school will now have interesting and satisfying careers, whereas others who were high school stars might not have lived up to their early promise. Seeing the range of grown-up outcomes will convince you that there’s no such thing as a straight and narrow life path that’s right for everyone.
– Resist upping the ante
When a friend brags about her child, just smile and say, “Congratulations!” or “That’s great!” Know that you don’t have to match or top her statement.
– Allow your child to experience healthy struggles
It’s hard to watch our kids suffer, but if we step in too quickly to solve problems that they could solve themselves, we steal their opportunity to learn important life skills. Offer lots of empathy and maybe some guidance, if needed, but give your child room to discover that setbacks are unpleasant but tolerable and often temporary.
– Focus on building skills
Being able to work hard, communicate clearly, cope with fears and frustration, and get along with others are fundamental life skills. It takes a lot of practice to learn them. When we help children develop these, we equip them for their journey.
– Trust your child
We don’t know what lies ahead for our children, but one of the most generous things we can give them is our trust that they will create a life that is meaningful and satisfying to them.
Grolnick, W. S., Price, C. E., Beiswenger, K. L., & Sauck, C. C. (2007). Evaluative pressure in mothers: Effects of situation, maternal, and child characteristics on autonomy-supportive versus controlling behavior. Developmental psychology, 43(4), 991-1002.
Luthar, S. S., Shoum, K. A., & Brown, P. J. (2006). Extracurricular involvement among affluent youth: A scapegoat for” ubiquitous achievement pressures”?. Developmental Psychology, 42(3), 583-597.