July 24, 2011 in Features

Carolyn Hax: Dad fears built-in competitive urge

Washington Post

Hi, Carolyn: How do I get over my innate competitive urge when it comes to my sons? The elder will start school next year and while I assume rationally that he can’t be the amazing exceptional one in everything like I embarrassingly frequently like to believe, I do actually feel my mood change when I get a blast of reality that other peers may be better than him at something.

Both are awesomely lovely kids so far; I just wonder if you have any managing-expectations tips to suffocate this silliness of mine. – Sheepishly competitive

The vaccine against mine-is-better-than-yours expectations is one you already possess: the knowledge that someone is always better at something. Right now it might be mostly abstract, but as other kids routinely do various things better than your kid (because even if your kid does excel, it’s likely to be in only one or two areas), that knowledge will be real and right in your face.

The kids who stand out do so not because their parents expertly fanned every little ember of promise, from genome to graduation. Instead, at work is a series of factors akin to planetary alignment. Among them are attentive (but not smothering) parents, but also among those factors are failure, frustration, devastating setbacks, limitations, and getting smoked at “Red light! Green light!” in preschool.

So when you botch something parentally/care about something ridiculously/resent your sons’ peers irrationally, feel free to comfort yourself with the possibility that this might be the very botching that accidentally deflects your boys onto their paths to glory.

Also feel free to laugh at your competitive impulses, because they’re normal (it’s acting on them that gets you in trouble). Being the parent of a young child is to live with daunting questions: Is he going to be OK? Happy? Able to keep up? Accepted by peers? Since these questions won’t be answered fully for years – decades, possibly – and since your serenity is riding on those answers, it’s only natural to seize upon little clues. In the whole sandbox, he’s the sturdiest on his feet, yay!

Seeing the normalcy and humor will help you keep these impulses safely inside, where they can’t hurt your children. And they do hurt; parentally imposed expectations of high performance breed anxiety and self-doubt, and often divert kids from paths they’d choose if they weren’t consumed by pleasing you.

Teaching them to measure themselves by the comparative strengths of their peers, on the other hand, is a remarkably effective way to knock them off the path toward making peace with themselves. So when you see Little Trey develop some skill before your Little Troy does, remind yourself how little that milestone means by adulthood. (“We’ve decided to give you an 8 percent raise given your mastery of the pincer grasp.”)

What will matter: how hard your boys work; how resourceful they are; how responsible, grateful, fair; how attuned they are to their own and to others’ needs. These are the life skills you want to encourage and praise in your kids, whether they’re in school or sports or the arts or knocking around the backyard, from when they’re very young to the point where they’ve grown out of reach.

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