Playing the Game of Parent One-Upmanship

(Originally appeared in The Beach Reporter, a community newspaper in Manhattan Beach, CA. in the mid-90’s. Still appropriate?)

We are a generation obsessed with possessions. We demand top-of-the-line cameras, microwaves, and phone systems. We thrive on competition. Give us twenty-six miles, and we’ll run it. Give us a job, and we’ll make vice-president. Give us garbage, and we’ll recycle it. What’s left?

You’ve got it: competition through your children. What greater ego trip could there be than having your little clone (excuse me, creation) be more perfect than yourself. You – without the hang-ups. Having children gives you the opportunity to create yourself all over again.

Parenting has become a game of one-upmanship. One kindergarten parent to another: “My little Alex is reading at the 3rd grade level already, and his piano lessons are going beautifully. His therapist thinks he is going to make a breakthrough controlling his temper tantrums, a sure sign of genius.” Other parent, in reply: “Well, my Elizabeth wrote the book your Alex is reading. And her violin teacher at UCLA thinks she is ready for a solo performance.”

Gag me with a sterling silver spoon.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with thinking your kid is brilliant and gifted, and the best all-around kid on the face of the earth. He probably is – to you and him. We’ve all had it drilled into our heads how important self-esteem is for children. You would never catch a parent today screaming, “THAT WAS SO STUPID, YOU KNUCKLEHEAD!” when his kid falls down in the bathtub while practicing hopping on one leg with his eyes closed.

No, today’s parent would say, “Alex, you’re such a great hopper! In fact, you are a super hopper! Maybe we should sign you up for some expensive gymnastics lessons, because you’re obviously a GIFTED hopper.”

In fact, “gifted” is the new buzzword of today’s world-class competitive parent. It isn’t enough to be merely brilliant or top of the class. But, gifted… We’re talking a preschooler who is obviously showing signs that she is Harvard material.

From the minute we bring our adorable children home from the hospital, we peer at them for signs that they are keeping up with the charts. You’ll hear the mother of a newborn say, “I know they’re not supposed to recognize anything yet, but I’m sure she smiled at me.” (It must have been the in-vitro Mozart sonatas and French tapes.)

It just escalates from there. Your baby rolls over two months earlier than schedule and you brag to anyone within earshot. He walks at ten months, and you start looking into baby aerobics. She talks in sentences at eighteen months and you tell everyone how scary it is that she’s so gifted.

I wish I could say I was different… But I, too, have played the one-upmanship game with the best of them. I hate myself for it. But I can’t help it. When your children are as brilliant as mine…

Today’s parents have become slaves to growth and development charts. We want the biggest, the brightest, the best. Do they really need tennis lessons at age four? (Maybe if you are preparing them for Wimbledon.) Or are we, as stressed-out parents, creating stressed-out kids, racing from school to soccer, to Kumon math, to diving lessons, and story-time?

Whatever happened to vegging out on the couch watching cartoons, or making mud puddles with the kids next door? Does every activity need to have a purpose that moves them toward some higher goal?

I’m sure if I had time, I could figure out the answers to these questions. But I’ve got to run my kids around to their various after-school activities. And did I mention, that according to the charts, they may be gifted?


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