Competing for parent points: why we’re all keeping score

Clarie McCarthy MD
Claire McCarthy MD

Sometimes, parenting can feel like a competitive sport.

Anyone who has hung out and talked with other parents at a park, soccer game or school event knows what I’m talking about. Conversations get started, all quite pleasantly, and then the questions—about the age of your child, where he goes to school, what activities she does, are you breastfeeding, do you work? 

Then, after the data gathering, there are the comments. Well, my child does this, my child does that; if you have food or drink with you, it might be oh, I never give my child that. My doctor says this, I read in a book that you must do that, I only ever do this. It’s just pleasant conversation, but boy, can it make a parent feel insecure.

My first child, Michaela, was a bit slow to do things. She walked late, and talked even later. There wasn’t anything wrong with her—she was just introducing us to her relaxed (sometimes lazy) approach to life—but when she was a toddler, she was clearly behind other kids her age. This was made worse by the fact that she has always been much taller than her peers; as a mildly delayed 18-month-old, she could easily have been taken for a very delayed 3-year-old. And that’s exactly what happened. Mothers at the park would give her funny looks, ask me questions, make comparisons to their children. As a new parent, it made me feel awful. 

The McCarthy clan (l to R) Liam, Micaela, Zach and Elsa
The Brown kids (l to R) Liam, Michaela, Natasha, Zack and Elsa

Raising kids is stressful these days. Parents are moving away from their families, and raising kids on their own. Extended families have a way of providing not just guidance but context; when you have a bunch of kids being raised together, all of whom are loved by everyone, I think it leads to a more relaxed and realistic approach to parenting. 

Without the extended family, many parents turn to books for advice, but here’s the thing about books: you can’t sell a book without having a “hook.” “Various Ways to Approach Potty Training that May or May Not Work Depending on Your Child’s Temperament and Cognitive Level” isn’t going on any best-sellers lists; “Potty Train Your Child In a Day” might, (even though most kids won’t potty train in a day.) For book marketing, it’s crucial to have the best and only way to feed, discipline or otherwise raise a child. Unfortunately, there’s essentially never only one way to feed, discipline or otherwise raise a child. But most new parents don’t know that.

There’s also a culture of achievement that infiltrates parenting. We all want our kids to shine. This is normal, but sometimes parents can take it too far. I get worried about the number of “activities” for toddlers and preschoolers, or the push for really early (before preschool) academic learning. I wince at the parents on the sidelines of sporting events screaming at their elementary-school-age children to do better. I felt, as the new parent of a wonderful little underachiever, like my child and I were constantly being sized up and categorized—usually based on little or no information.

So what can you do, if you’re one of those parents sitting on the side of a sandbox feeling uncertain—or awful?  Here are some suggestions for those sandbox moments.

  • Remember that all kids really are different. Remind yourself of this fact a lot.
  • When you’re not repeating the all kids are different mantra, repeat to yourself that there is never one way to do anything.
  • Know that early achievement does not necessarily correlate with later success (you don’t have to say this out loud, but it’s very comforting to think of while people are bragging).
  • The real expert on your child isn’t a book or a neighbor or a friend: it is you. Trust your instincts. If you have questions, or any concerns about your child’s development, talk to your doctor.

Michaela is 19 now. If I could find those park mothers again, it would be fun to introduce her: an A student at Northeastern, accomplished and charming.  And the height paid off—she looks like a fashion model now. But of course, they wouldn’t remember her. Because it was never about Michaela. It wasn’t about their kids, either.  It was about them. 

As someone who is raising five very different children, and who has been a pediatrician for 20 years, here’s what I believe with all my heart: the best thing you can do for your child is love them. Really love them, for who they are—and find ways to show that love every day. If you do that, I promise that the rest will fall into place.