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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Parenting as a Competitive Sport

Jan 07, 2008 12:00AM

Try to arrange a play date with a child these days and you need a personal assistant to keep track of their commitments. Listen in outside a typical first grade classroom and you’ll hear conversations like this:

“Mondays we have Scouts, Tuesdays and Thursdays are soccer, of course; Wednesday we have choir, and Friday is our day at the shelter,” one mom will say. “How about Saturday?”

“Saturday is out, we have cheerleading in the morning and Tae Kwon Do in the afternoon.”

Obviously, kids are scheduled by parents, who then ferry their offspring all over creation to attend said events. Why do parents want kids to be busy all the time? To enrich, to stimulate, to broaden horizons… and to keep up with the Joneses.

In my circle of friends the answer to “How are you?” is not “Fine” but “Busy!” The activities and enrichments in our kids’ lives are all good things, but there are only so many days of the week to pack them in, and life gets hectic with Brownies, soccer, and choir, to name a few.

Think of the choices out there and it’s like a smorgasbord of offerings: There’s physical health, mental development, spiritual growth, and fun. We have sports, which are good for physical health and promoting teamwork and cooperation. They run around with their friends and usually have a healthy snack, too.

Here are just a few of the choices available to our kids: T-Ball on up through Little League or softball; soccer, including indoor and outdoor; football or cheer; gymnastics; swimming; martial arts; basketball; and professional marbles. (Hey, it could be a sport. Poker is, apparently.)

There’s community involvement like church groups; 4H; Girl or Boy Scouts; or Boys and Girls Clubs. These outlets give kids a chance to be involved and contribute to society, as well as make great lanyards and bead projects.

There’s music—can’t forget about that. So we check out choices from choirs to instruments to bands. Now we have the lessons and the practice times to work with, too. Plus, we get to hear “Mary Had a Little Lamb” endlessly for three months.

There are special interest programs and classes like art, pottery or magic. Make sure you have plenty of space for creations and equipment!

All these things are good, in and of themselves. The problem is that there is often a competitive edge to having your child in activities. The push to be involved is early and strong. There’s a feeling of pressure:

What if they have talent and you squander it? Gymnastics classes for two year olds may be a fun way to get out and meet other kids, or it may be a small step forward to the Olympics. (You have to start early, you know. Ten is over the hill for gymnastics.)

What if our kid is the next Georgia O’Keefe and we won’t pop for the good paint set? Better be safe than sorry, right?

Get two parents together and they instinctively pull out the comparisons. Certainly being able to have benchmarks is nice; without something right to compare things to, it’s hard to know what is not right.

Most of us would agree that it is nice to have some rough guidelines out there to know where the edges are. (They usually crawl by seven months, say, or they can eat honey after one year.) Finding out a child is delayed in some area may indeed lead to helpful interventions, and the ability to correct early is key.

There is love behind some of the bragging competitiveness; in the way parents truly believe their little one is the most perfect child ever known to mankind. Their kid is smarter, cuter, faster, and more capable.

There are competitions to have the worst kid, ever, too. Get a few moms together and let them brag a while, then start on the “you won’t believe what he/she did yesterday” stories for a few hair-curling hours.

What is becoming more common, though, is a push to have Super Kids, regardless of their natural abilities. There’s even a term for it: “competitive parenting.” If you type “competitive parenting” into Amazon’s search engine you get 71 hits, including titles with terms like “Hyper-Parenting.” Even more astonishing, type in the phrase “my kid is better than yours” and you get 469 hits!

In The Mother of All Toddler Books by Ann Douglas, a mother of five is quoted as saying, “I think that parents who become competitive about things like toilet training are less confident in their parenting and need to have something measurable to reassure them.”

Reassure yourself with this promise: Kids are unique, with sets of skills and interests that are as unique as they are. Not all kids are athletic, or musical, or artistic. They all come into the world ready to learn and grow and experience life, and as parents we want to give them the best possible start in life.

Remember to schedule in some blank space for kids to be kids, and time for spontaneity. As long as we remember that it’s their life we are enriching, and not our own competitive nature, and we’ll all do just fine.

Back to the play date: How does Tuesday night at 10 p.m. look for you? Yeah, we’re booked, too. (Sigh.)


By Juliana LeRoy