Much like a bartender listens to their patrons complaints at the bar, as a swim instructor, I typically overhear my parents talking among each other about the typical issues: teething, developmental milestones, getting into a good preschool, etc.  My experience tells me that at some point during these pleasant exchanges, the conversations always take a slightly “competitive” tone, and parents ( mostly mothers) begin sharing the extensive list of their childs accomplishments, awards, activities and milestones.It is not uncommon to hear this type of conversation on the deck:

“Oh, I would love to meet for lunch, but we are so busy, we have ballet, music, swim, gym and art class. Maybe we can squeeze it in between spanish class and yoga on Friday?” ( Her daughter is 2 years old) “Oh , Friday we have baseball in the afternoon, and  a play- group in morning, and we might get in a karate class after we finish the French homework.”

When did parenting become the most competitive sport in the world? I remember the day when going to the playground, soccer field or swimming pool was a great time to see your friends, and a time for the parents to reconnect. Today, parents congregate and compare what preschool their kids are in, who’s infant walked the earliest, whose child is the superstar in their class, or who is generally the GREATEST CHILD EVER.  Todays competitive parents shuttle their children between sports, music, art, language classes and any other extra curricular activity that could get their child that “edge”. What is that?

Imagine a world where the children engaged in the same type catty banter on the playground. Can you see 4 year old Susie, 5 year old Matt, and 4 year old Beth sitting on the swing set, engaged in this conversation:

 Beth: ” So, guess what! My mom finally got that job she’s been wanting. She is so happy to be returning to work.”  

Susie: “Really?  You mother doesn’t already have a job? My mother has a full time career. She works as the Vice President of Sales, AND still makes time to take me to all my activities.” “

Beth: “Well, my mom hasn’t been in the work force much, so she is happy to go back and is hoping to work her way back up”

Susie: ” Goodness, well, with only a Bachelors degree, what can she expect? My mommy has two degrees, a BA and an MBA. What degree does your mommy have, Matt?

Matt: “My mommy doesn’t have a degree, she stays at home to take care of me”

Beth: “Really, that’s all she does? Why doesn’t she go and volunteer somewhere,or help out in your classroom. MY mommy was the class helper for 2 years. She made everyone’s costumes and helped with all the bake-sales”

Susie: ” Yes, Matt, my mommy is the HEAD of the PTA, as well as PRESIDENT of the Parents for Kids organization. Really, how can your mother just take care of you? Doesn’t she want something better for herself?

Matt: ” I think my mommy really likes being just a mommy. My daddy takes care of us too”

Beth: ” Oh yes, my daddy is so great. He is my softball coach. He was named Coach of the Year. He also owns a big company, and makes lots of money. Susie, what does your daddy do?”

Susie: ” My daddy not only owns his company too, he coaches too. He coaches my soccer team, AND my brothers team. They are the best team in the league. My daddy says it’s because all the kids come from good schools. That’s why we go to Exeter Academy. Where do you go to school, Matt”

Matt: ” I just go to Sunflower Preschool. I really like it there. We learn reading, and writing and sing songs”

Susie: ” What! You don’t learn French, or learn to play the piano, or look at Van Gogh paintings? Really, Matt, don’t you think you should speak to your parents about the importance of a good education.  Our school is so fantastic, it’s really helping us get a head start on life”

 Peter N. Stearns, a social historian at George Mason University, and the author of “Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America”  said it quite eloquently; “In our society now, a child’s success in school has become emblematic of your success as a parent.”

Why do parents obsess over their children’s success? Is it good for the child, or the parent. Isn’t the first priority to raise responsible, independent children? And where is the breaking point where children should simply allowed to be kids, complete with their own personal timelines.

At the pool, I see highly competitive parents often lose sight of what is really important: their childs happiness and enjoyment of the activity. Countless times I have shared in a small but significant accomplishment with my student, only to have the parent either dismiss it, or critique it. Conversely, many parents feel they can teach better than their childs instructor, and attempt to coach their child during the lesson,  often with incorrect information or  inappropriate skills. The frequent corrections, critiques and interruptions are not only disrespectful of the class, the instructor and the overall class environment, but can lead to a student becoming  overwhelmed and unhappy.  Spending energy on comparing your childs rate of progression to that of children of the same age is simply unfair to both the instructor and the student.

With respect to swim lessons,at the end of the day, it is the professionals  who know the most about the lesson and your childs capabilities, and they will often know what is best for the children in their care. They will have a better idea of their strengths, weaknesses and limitations.   Simply sitting and observing lessons  can be frustrating for a competitive parent who has the desire for their two year old to swim like Michael Phelps in 8 weeks.

Do you think you are a competitive parent? Ask yourself this: Do I find myself succumbing to the pressure of involving my child in numerous activities for the sake of their emotional, cognitive or social development? Do you find yourself contributing to the conversations where comparisons are made? ( Well, my daughter started walking at 6 months old…when did your daughter start walking”) Do you concentrate on what they can’t do, instead of what they can? Do you pretend to be the professional or the parent? Do you try to do the jobs of your child’s teachers and coaches or do you simply play the role of a caring parent that focuses on the important aspects of life?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your child’s accomplishments, however, avoid the comparison game. It’s always best to remember that every child develops differently and at different rates. If you find that you are a competitive parent, work on ways to curb the habit, encourage your children’s uniqueness, and work to help other parents avoid the same trap.

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