Competitive Parenting: So Ya Wanna Take This Outside?

By Debby Shulman

I don’t think anyone would dispute the fact that we all love our children. Granted, some would like you to believe that they actually DO love their children more than you, and love to boast about it via Facebook or in line at Starbucks. Many others, however, seem to be content; quietly parenting and doing what works for them without much fanfare or the need to indulge others in their children’s successes. But by the time it’s college application season, true colors shine through. And I think it’s a good time – whether your child is in junior high school or high school – to take a step back and think about just what exactly you have on your plate.

Let’s face it – our kids are an extension of ourselves.

I remember getting such a kick out of dressing my daughter in the same clothes I would wear, right down to the baby Doc Martens and little True Religion jeans. I loved watching her mimic me as she pouted her sweet baby lips and played with my lipstick. I loved having her splay her teeny tiny fingers out for a hot pink manicure.  She was me Her first board game was Mahjong; she made banana bread at the age of three. From the bouncy curls to the ferocious appetite for cheeseburgers and attraction to anything sparkly … you could tell that baby was mine from miles away. So it would seem reasonable that as she grew, it became harder for me to separate the young lady she was evolving into with the young lady I thought I wanted her to be.

Being a teenager in our little corner of the world is like wading through the thickest of muck; it’s emotional quicksand.

Take a wrong step and you will sink down while others just walk on by. Some teens are made to feel as if they are invincible, without fault, perfect offspring of beautiful parents. But when they experience the (GASP) ordinary, it stings something awful. Walk through the hallways of any affluent suburban high school and you’ll hear students boast of larger-than-life (and often made-up) ACT scores, parents with university connections, and rumors of monetary donations made to alma maters in the hopes of securing an acceptance. None of these behaviors help our teens distinguish who they really are from whom their parents want them to be. If you have to donate something in order to get your kid into school – doesn’t that send a message? If you force your child to take the ACT countless times for no other reason than YOUR desire to get the extra point, then what are you saying to the child who just wants to stop? What do we do when our child just happens to be real, ordinary and well, average?

Ahh, but that’s unacceptable to many: Tommy should be above average, Tommy should be capable of great things because Tommy’s parents won’t settle for anything less.

And that’s what they see when they look at Tommy … a reflection of who they think they are, NOT what their son has turned out to be. Everybody is in the National Honor Society. Everybody is going Ivy League. Everybody seems to be working very hard to keep up with Everybody.

Let it go.

When will parents realize that teens, who selectively ignore us when we ask them to clean their rooms, are very actively listening when we speak about them to others? Venturing guesses as to where Tommy will apply and why Tommy’s lineage at certain unnamed Ivies will secure him a spot (false) is the topic of conversation everywhere – and all of it right in front of Tommy, and he is most definitely paying attention.  But here’s the deal ….What if Tommy just happens to be that ordinary guy, the garden variety type; not the preppy, Top-Sider clad, Vineyard Vines Daddy his father has turned out to be? Is that wrong?

Lots of pressure to live up to unattainable expectations; lots of room for that (GASP) perfectly ordinary boy to feel the bite of his parent’s ego.

Welcome to the age of Competitive Parenting, where it’s not about the kid, it’s about the PARENTS.

That vicious and vicarious “live through your child” behavior serves up nothing more than internal defeat; a silent lack of confidence and ongoing uncertainty about what to do when a teen feels he or she has not measured up to unreasonable expectations. I am amazed at the running commentary in social media about people’s fabulously talented teens, as if the home run, the new trophy or the elite team makes their child any better than the rest. But here’s the secret: their kids see that, internalize it, and when there isn’t a post to congratulate Tommy on the C+ he got in Biology, well, then  no praise for the ordinary. No trophy post for the average, no exclamation points for that horrible game.  Competitive parenting requires a particular image – or façade — and the sad thing is, our kids are acutely aware of when Mom’s and Dad’s ‘image’ doesn’t match who they really, truly are. How do these kids even begin to reconcile that?

Competitive parenting stems from insecure parents. They want their children to out-do, out-perform and out-score everyone else on the block to offset their own deeply rooted insecurities.

And that sad transparency speaks volumes about their inability to accept the garden-variety child.

Love what you have in front of you; learn to embrace your kid and move past mixing his accomplishments with your ego.

Let it go.

Back to my perfectly ordinary, extremely funny daughter. I am at a place where my ego no longer converges with hers. While not perfect, she possesses the qualities I think we all want in our children: respect, morality, integrity, patience, sensitivity and love. And while these, in my opinion, are the most critical and imperative traits to aspire to have; they are not found in an ACT score, they will not be posted on someone’s Facebook page (“Tommy’s First Place trophy for being SENSITIVE!!! Woot woot!!!”).  But, they do define all of the attributes that represent success and true happiness.

It seems to me nothing is more important.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare:  Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. 




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