When I hear moms comparing kids, my blood boils. But then I realized I was guilty of it, too.
Imagine a mother is teaching her 6-year-old to ride her bike. The girl is a little uneasy sitting on the seat. She turns around all the time to check if Mom is still holding her. She jumps off. The woman grows impatient. Finally, she blurts out, “All the other kids your age can already ride their bikes!” The little girl, wounded, gets even more upset, saying: “I don’t want to ride a bike at all! I hate bikes! I’d rather learn how to roller-skate! I don’t have to do everything my friends do!”
Bu I don’t need to imagine this moment because I witnessed it on my street while coming home one day. And it stuck in my memory like a thorn. Because I knew I was guilty of the same thing.
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While watching that scene unfold, I realized that even though my own son is too young to compare skills like bike riding or school grades, I have already managed to compare him to other children on many other levels. And he isn’t even age one yet.
Comparison means a winner and a loser
I’ve been comparing my small child to averages almost as a matter of course, though unconsciously. But I’m not just talking about some silly parent-to-parent contests about who’s child can already sit, stand, walk, talk, eat independently, or reach the mouth with a fork with their eyes closed. (Though it’s all too easy to get sucked into these conversations with mom-friends.) I’ve been comparing my kid to hundreds and thousands of other children through averages and tables in my parenting books.
And it started early: As an infant, I meticulously checked him against development tables; I checked what a baby should be doing at 34 weeks old and what progress should be made at 42 weeks old. I watched his tiny peers out of the corner of my eye, and then unknowingly applied an invisible measuring tape to compare the development of my child. Of course, I did all of this with the best of intentions. I wanted to make sure my baby was progressing in a healthy and normal way. The trouble is when we let these numbers control us, frustrate us, and take over.
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But there was something even more unsettling going on—another reason why the scene of mother-daughter biking lessons chilled me; It reminded me of my own childhood.
I saw myself coming home from school with a large backpack. A fairly solid student, I often walking into the kitchen and telling my mother I go an A or a B on this quiz or that test. On these occasion, my mom was obviously happy, but she’d quickly add a question which ruined everything: “And what did so-and-so get?” inserting the name of one of the best students in the class. In her eyes, it was a competition. If I got a B+, and someone else got an A, they had won, which implied that I had lost.
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For many years I had (and maybe I still have) an unquenchable desire to be the best at everything I did. The tiger moms of the world might argue that this gave me the drive I needed to go the extra mile and push myself to success. But I would argue that because of that mentality, I regarded many of my successes as too small to be worthy of praise: meaningless. I always needed to set new and higher goals for myself so that I could reach another level. The one I was on was never good enough.
So, is it a vicious cycle?
No, I don’t hold a grudge against my mom. As a parent myself now, I understand how easy it must have been to compare kids without meaning to do it. Maybe it’s subconscious. And I might easily discover myself saying the same things. i am, after all, my mother’s daughter.
That said, now that I am conscious of this pattern and its harmfulness, I shouldn’t just throw up my hands, and wait for the circle to complete itself. Now that I’ve identified this behavior in my mother and myself, I realized I have the power to try to stop it. So why wouldn’t I?
My child is the most important thing to me in the world. His achievements, as simple as that first grabbing of a spoon to get soup into his own mouth, or rolling the length of the room or pointing to his bear when he wants it … in my mind these are feats comparable to reaching a summit of a 26,000-footer in the winter, alpine style, without oxygen. Each little scoot, and eventually step, is a big achievement, regardless of what other babies are doing in their own kitchens and living rooms at that same moment.
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I do not care what my friend Joanna’s child did when he was my son’s age, or what age Sophia’s daughter walked at, or that Eveline’s son regularly swims and appears in ads for baby products.
Somewhere in my many books, I know I have every table (well, maybe not every table, but certainly more than I could ever need), which can tell me with expert-researched accuracy what my son should be doing at any given week of his early life. Some abstract average of many children, all of them different, mushed together in a mathematical equation and then into a chart. And the more I read these charts the more I realized how wildly different from them any given child might be: My son can’t do some things that an average 11-month old should, but he does other things that the average one-year-old can’t even master. So who’s to say he isn’t developing just fine?
Admiration can take you miles
So I’ve come to the simple conclusion that the minutiae of these tables are not important. And even less important are the skills and abilities of other children, classmates, or playground friends. The most important thing is what my child can do, not what he can’t. Because I don’t want him to be define by what he can’t do. Each new skill he learns, each new thing he tries, every success he has along the way, will be met with great and endless admiration in my eyes, whether it happens “early,” “right on time,” or “late.”
Why is this so important? “Small children develop for parents, and for parents only, not for themselves,” says Michal, the head of a family-run orphanage. And since they develop for the parents, they search in the eyes of their parents for those signs of admiration and approval to give them encouragement.
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Even though as kids grow, that dependency becomes less and less, it gives the foundation for self-esteem and a sense of security at home and around other children. It fosters children who aren’t afraid to fail, to look for what makes them happy, and to discover all the passions and potential they might hold.
That little bike-riding girl did take up rolling skating in the end: I watched her glide up and down our street for years. And later, as a young woman, she went on to study Japanese and graphic design as her course of studies. And I’m sure her parents—their support and motivation—helped her have the courage to skate down her own path in life, rather than simply bike down someone else’s.
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