Whoever has the best child gets a cookie.

I love my children. Like most doting parents, I think that my kids are the best kids in the world. They're always the cutest, always the best behaved, and man, are they ever smart! I, however, am not delusional. I know this is normal and that all parents (well, all decent parents) feel this way about their children.

I also have a confession to make: in addition to believing my kids are the best, I am also occasionally guilty of judging the behavior of other children. Usually, the judgment is aimed at their parents: "He's three and they seriously haven't taught him how to say please and thank you?" or "Wow, I can't believe her mom let her get away with that." In private, my husband and I have often proudly compared our little angels to our friends' children, pointing out all the things that make our kids great. I'd wager a guess that even though we all care about each other, our friends have made the same comparisons about our kids.

I honestly don't see that much of a problem with this; I think it's a pretty natural phenomenon. It makes total sense to me that parents would be absolutely in love with their kids--in love enough to not notice the flaws that other people see. There is a problem, however, when parents bring their not-so-nice comparisons out in the open, turning a playdate in to a competition to see whose kids are "better."

Last week, our family went out to dinner with the family of my brother-in-law's fiancee. It just so happens that her parents (her dad and stepmom) have a son who is only 2 months younger than our oldest son. I thought, well, that will be kind of cool, they can keep each other company. What I didn't expect was that this would be the OLYMPICS of child-comparison competitions.

The jabs started out subtle. My son pointed at a red balloon and said, "Mommy, I want that pink ballon!"
"Hot pink, huh," she snickered, "And he doesn't even have any sisters at home! Besides, that balloon isn't pink. What color is that balloon, Johnny?" she asked her son.
"It's red, Mommy!" Johnny cheerfully replied.
"Very good, Johnny. James, what color is that other balloon?" she asked my son, pointing at a blue balloon.
"Green!" My son replied, just as cheerfully.
"No, it's blue, Mommy!" interjected Johnny.

This same conversation continued until Johnny had correctly and without hesitation named the colors of all the balloons in the restaurant. My son, bless his heart, tried to name the colors with little success. It's something we've been working on; he knows them but he often confuses them (and I'm not concerned about it because he always confuses the same names of colors with each other, which makes me believe he understands the concept, he just hasn't memorized the color names yet).

After this amazing display of Johnny's color-naming skills, his Mommy explained--her chest puffed up with pride--how Johnny would be moving in to the 4-year-old class at preschool even though he just turned three. See, he's in a very prestigious preschool...he had to apply to get in and everything!

"Can James even say his ABC's yet? Didn't you say he was older than Johhny? Oh, really? That's too bad. Johnny, say the ABC's for us! Oh, and he can write his name. Write your name, Johnny! Oh, and why don't you show them how you can dance, Johnny?"

This friendly banter continued for some time, as we waited for our food to be brought. There was no doubt that Johnny's Mommy was attempting to prove how AMAZING her son was, and she was not shy about pointing out where she felt my son was lacking. By the time our food came, I was fuming, although I was doing my best to stay civil for the sake of my brother-in-law and his fiancee.

I don't understand the need to prove that your child is the best. In my mind, it's enough that I know how great my children are, and although I might be proud enough to mention something awesome that they can do, I've never compared my sons' accomplishments directly to the inadequacies of my friends' children--well, at least not to their parents' face. In a perfect world, we wouldn't be comparing our children at all, but in the real world we can at LEAST keep our opinions to ourselves.

Just as I was getting ready to shove a hot buttered roll in Johnny's Mommy's mouth just to shut her up for a while, however, my son took care of the problem all by himself. Dinner was done and the boys had both just received a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream. Perfect, smart, ABC-singing Johnny dove right in--face first. No attempt at using a spoon, he just stuck his face in the bowl and started eating like an animal. My dull, non-color-knowing little James turned up his nose, and with all the patience he could muster, pronounced, "Oh, Johnny! Don't do that it's RUDE! We use a SPOON to eat ice cream!"

I didn't laugh, but I wanted to. It made me feel a lot better about the whole situation, and it also made me realize something. We all know there's only so many hours in a day, and thus there's only so many things you have time to teach to your children. We pick and choose the lessons we teach our kids, mainly based on our own preferences and values. For me, early childhood is a blessing for my children because no one is forcing them to learn anything--they're learning by playing and enjoying the world before life suddenly gets "structured" when they hit grade school...but I expect them to mind their p's and q's in the meantime. For Johnny's Mommy, having a smart, "advanced" child who can sing his ABC's while tapdancing is at the top of the list, with manners being somewhere around...nonexistent. These are the parenting choices we have made, and therefore the things we're proud about are different. No one's child is the "best," we've all got great kids, and they all excel in different areas in life--most likely the areas of life that we've shown them are important to us.

Johnny's Mommy could certainly use a chill pill when it comes to her expressions of pride, but at the end of the day, I think we all win as long as we're trying our hardest. Just try not to knock my kid down on your way to the winner's circle. There's enough cookies for all of us.


ck said...

What a great post. I really connected with everything you wrote, especially this line, "We pick and choose the lessons we teach our kids, mainly based on our own preferences and values." You're so right about that.

Oh, and I connected with this line too, "There's enough cookies for all of us." I think you should have that made into t-shirts. :)

~Laura said...

This is a great post. Well written. I think you touched on a topic that is really relevant in today's parenting styles. My husband and I joke that everyone feels the need to have some sort of gifted or talented child. It's not good enough just to have them be a kid-or performing in school or sports at the level that's appropriate for them. So happy for your little one and his spoon! You can feel sorry for little Johnny. He has a lifetime of expectations to live up to.

Ginny Marie said...

My cousin's daughter is extremely gifted, which is wonderful, but yet she can't stop reminding us! (I'd love to send her this post, but then she might stop talking to me!) I would rather have the life I have, though, with a happy marriage and nice, average kids. She's going through a messy divorce right now, and is going to be a single mom with her ex mostly absent. (He's a pilot.)

Launa said...

It's hard to avoid the temptation to be overly attached to our children's "performance" relative to other kids, to imagine that their beauty/wit/manners/tap dancing skills are a direct reflection of our own enviable skills as parents.

But can I tell you a hard-won lesson from my years in the trenches of the world of education? A lesson confirmed by my own often painful experiences as a parent?

When kids are wonderful, or when they are rotten, it is almost never about anything the parents have done consciously. The children just arrive to us, characters intact. We can mess them up, certainly, and we can nudge them the tiniest bit in one direction or another. We can do our best to deal with what they bring to the party, and how it interacts with what we did as well.

But when it goes really, really right, there is something more than just skill at work. It's the luck of great karma, good genes, and a naturally lovely disposition.

Sounds like you and your children are some of the supremely lucky ones. This will give you the impetus to practice a little bit of gentle compassion when you run into families where things will never be so smooth. (You know, like at my house.)

Loved the post and how it got me thinking.