When parents compete

As a parent, I sometimes see odd, nay, even irksome, behaviour from other parents. But one of my biggest pet peeves in the parenting realm is when parents get competitive. If you’re a parent, you’re possibly already familiar with the verbal dance that takes place when parents meet and discuss their offspring’s behaviour and achievements. One parent starts off with some seemingly innocuous comment relating to his/her own child, and the other parent’s response, instead of a “That’s nice”, or “Um-hmm”, is an immediate, “Oh, well you should see what my little one can do . . . ” It’s these people who keep industries such as baby beauty pageants and bumper stickers humming, steadily churning out oversized trophies and banners proclaiming “My kid is an honour-roll student.”

I once had a friend—no, let’s downgrade that—acquaintance do that exact thing on the few occasions when I saw her and we’d discuss what was new with our life and our children. It seemed that she took every comment about my daughter to be a challenge to hers. Every remark on my part became an opportunity for her to let me know that her child could do all that, and possibly even more. And it’s not even that I’m a braggart and start my side of conversations with, “Check out how wonderful my kids are!”. If she asked me, “What’s new with you all? What are the kids up to these days?” I would invariably give a quick summary of some of my kids’ recent activities or interests. Not in a gushing “Well, you should see what little Johnny and Sue are doing, because they’re so good at it!” way, but more of a “Johnny and Sue are doing that activity, or have been reading this book, and really enjoying it.” But whenever she hears, “So-and-so is doing this, and really enjoying that”, she’d respond immediately with, “Oh, my child A has done that, and is great at it”, or “Child B would enjoy that. He’s just so good at that sort of thing.” This is the type of conversation that really annoys me, because in actuality, it’s not an exchange of information at all, but an impatient lie-in-wait for the next opportunity to boast of one’s own child. It’s easy to see then, that I tired rather quickly of “conversing” with this particular mom, and whereas I had previously enquired how her kids were doing, now I avoided the topic as much as possible.

That type of behaviour paled in comparison, however, to what took place a few days ago, when my 3-year-old son and I had an interesting little encounter with a stranger and her daughter at the public library. The little girl, whom I estimated to be about 4 or 5 years old, was sitting by herself, tapping away at what looked like a game on the computer, while her mom was browsing the bookshelves a few steps away. My dear son was seated across from the little girl, happily and rather randomly hitting the keys on one of those cute little kiddie keyboards that libraries sometimes have, to encourage computer literacy among the tot set. Within a few minutes, the girl’s mom had come over to see what her daughter was doing, and it was almost at that exact moment that ds chose to call out letters as he spelled out his name on the keyboard. He hunted and pecked out six perfect little letters, and then looked up at me with a big grin, awaiting approval and congratulations.

You know how you can tell out of the corner of your eye when someone is staring at you? This was the case, with the other mom. In a split second, a light bulb went on in her head, and something terribly funny began to happen. She turned to her daughter and asked her in a loud voice, “Honey, how do you spell your name? Remember? What are the letters?”

The next minute was an agonizing exchange between eager-to-show-off mom (ETSOM) and reluctant daughter (RD), trying to concentrate on her game.
ETSOM: “C’mon, honey. You know how to do this.”
RD: “But mom, I don’t want to do this.”
ETSOM: “What’s the next letter? C’mon . . . ‘d’. Good.”
RD: “Mo-ooom. Why do I have to do this now?”
ETSOM: “Honey! Why can’t you do this? Here, let me help you: ‘i’. C’mon.” And so on.

While this was going on between the two, ETSOM was glancing repeatedly in our direction, as if to say, “Are you catching all this?”(I was catching this interaction all out of the corner of my eye. Why give ETSOM the attention that she so badly craved, with a full-on stare and open-jawed wonder?) And then something even funnier occured: When I noticed that my son was employing both hands to activate the mouse (he who was so used to a one-finger touchpad), I took a moment to show him how to do it properly. ETSOM must have taken this as the next challenge, and her interest in us was increased. Surely, this little boy wasn’t going to get ahead of her own dear child in that area too, and learn some sort of new skill? She revved up her interaction with her daughter with this pièce de résistance:

ETSOM: “Mmmm-wah!”
RD: “Mom! Why’d you do that?”
ETSOM: “What? I just want to give my daughter a kiss! I love you! Is that so wrong?”
RD (sigh): “Can I just play my game?”
I fully expected to see ETSOM drag the poor girl off the chair at any moment, ready to launch her into some sort of tapdancing routine. That would have completely made my day.

All of this, I found highly amusing, even if a bit sad. People like ETSOM are just one step away from being the overenthusiastic and prodding backstage mom, or the loudmouthed, belligerent hockey dad. I’m sure that for the competitive parent, the only thing they really want is a foil, someone who responds appropriately, so that they can rev up the competition level. I hadn’t provided that, and I’m sure that that must have frustrated her to a certain degree. I had merely sat there, not responding, watching my child contentedly chat and type, while picturing the gears grinding in her head and fumes exiting her ears.

Some say that a little competition is healthy. I say that it can be quite harmful. I grew up around competitive parents, and their kids who felt the effect, forced to constantly out-do each other in order to give their parents something more to brag about. Hell, I’ll admit it, my parents were very competitive too. But I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to repeat this behaviour (like many other things that my parents did that I swore I would never do). But not all adults have come to this decision. It appears that the competitive and comparative behaviour has trickled down to some parents of my generation.

And this, my friends, is just another one of the many reasons why we homeschool.