The Contest

Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance your kid is average. Average height, average weight, average intelligence, eyesight, hearing, muscle tone, and on and on. And yet, whenever parents speak to one another, it is in the highly coded language employed by parents to imply or sometimes overtly state that their children are gifted prodigies who only interact with other children through the goodness of their pure, pure hearts.

Jen and I have had this discussion a few times, and this post was inspired by the latest iteration thereof. A friend of ours boasted not too long ago that her kid was “reading” (but without the quotation marks) at the tender age of 2. We saw this boy do his parlor trick, and it was obvious that what was happening was a recital, a mere memorization of the words of a book; the kid turned pages faster than the words could come out. Joshua did that, and every kid who’s ever latched on to a favorite book has probably done that once some limited fluency developed. It’s not reading, your kid’s not Einstein (and neither is mine), and get over yourselves.

Jen asks an important question — why? Why overstate your kid’s abilities and accomplishments when your kid isn’t any different than any other kid? I think there’s some pride involved. After all, the unstated opinion is that, if your kid can do it, it’s because of you — in equal parts your inspired parenting and your gold-plated DNA. It couldn’t possibly be due to the perfectly normal development of kid’s brains. They learn FAST, faster than we could ever manage as adults, and so these typical abilities and the speed with which they gain them strike many of us as fantastical.

Compounding matters is that there are few meaningful benchmarks or milestones that say, “Your child should be able to weave a basket by age 7.”* There are some incredibly basic ones, mostly related to motor skills early on — rolling over, passing things from hand to hand, crawling, and others — but when it comes to cognitive development, the stages are broad. Your kid should begin talking between nine and 18 months. That’s literally twice the kid’s lifetime in order to pick up that new skill. Potty training? It can happen as early as 2 or as late as 5, and, again, that’s a couple of lifetimes worth of growth and learning. And so, when our kids gain new abilities at the earlier ends of those spreads, we convince ourselves that we’re raising the next generation of scholars, policy-makers, or innovators when, in fact, they will be just as likely to end up scrubbing floors or fixing cars as the rest of us. **

This isn’t to say that we haven’t done our share of bragging. It’s a parent’s prerogative (though subordinate to the grandparent’s prerogative). But while we might extol Joshua’s grasp of polygons up to twenty sides, we have to always temper such boasts with our knowledge that, not too many months ago, he ate a sticker off the bottom of Jen’s shoe. Kids are, by design, intellectual sponges, but man, they’re as dumb as a box of hammers some times.

Now, of course, the real issue is the contest. I have noticed that among my Type A parent friends, the bravado and pretension are more extensions of personality than they are real statements of pride in what their kids have accomplished. There is nothing wrong, to a limited degree, in the latter. But the former is annoying as piss. The most blatant manifestations of this are the, “My kid is an honor roll student at Self-Loathing Elementary School” bumper stickers. Those of us who respond to such boasting with our finest passive-aggression have answered with, “My kid can beat up your honor student.”  For the record, the most truthful*** parenting bumper sticker I’ve ever seen was this one.


The contest, in which we parents gauge our worth as human beings by the development of our kids as compared to the development of other kids, is absurd. It’s also inescapable. What every parent hopes for, deep down, is not that his kid will be a genius or an athlete or a leader. We just hope that he’ll grow up to be whatever passes for “normal” and that he’ll pay for a decent retirement home when we start drooling on the Thanksgiving table. But the contest is an outgrowth of some of our fears and insecurities. We’re afraid our kids won’t be normal, so we try to compare them to other kids as a way to see if they’re on track to, well, middling. While this slightly unhealthy and totally useless comparison is more or less benign, it usually metastasizes into a penis-measuring contest**** between parents trying to subtly hint that their child is a superior human which is probably due to us being superior humans.

And we do this because we see our kids do really, truly, befuddlingly (probably not a word) stupid things. If our egos are lucky, they happen when nobody is around. My story about this is four words long — Joshua ate bird poop. If you’re a parent, you know that your infants and toddlers will pop ANYTHING into their mouths and that, unless you buy a muzzle for your kid, all of your best efforts to keep things out will still not be enough. Things get through. Jen and I were each less than five feet away, but it was still just a few inches too far. It happens. He’s still alive, so how bad can bird poop be?

A few months ago, we took Joshua to a kids gym to get some of his four-year old energy out. While he was playing, we saw another mom “helping” her child with some homework while her younger kid was playing. This older kid was, I’m guessing, about seven or eight years old. He was crookedly drawing letters and numbers in a workbook — stuff that was obviously a bit behind grade-level for him unless he was quite physically mature for his age. His mother was getting frighteningly frustrated with his deficiencies, at one point tearing the pencil out of his hand, saying, “No, that’s still wrong! I just can’t let you do this.” She became instantly self-conscious and tried to dial back the intensity as she set her kid back to work. To us, she offered a fiction about how he was so advanced that he’d forgotten some of the stuff he was supposed to be doing in class. And, not really caring at all, we just gave a weak smile and a nod and let her continue to sulk and fume and fidget.

Look, every kid is different. They learn things differently. I used to be a teacher, albeit briefly, and this reality was never more obvious to me than when I tried to get 25 twelve-year olds to understand something new. I often hear parents bemoan the proliferation of IEPs (Individual Education Plans) in school, citing a sourceless claim of the over-diagnosis of one learning or behavioral disorder or another. But kids do learn differently. In a perfect school, every kid should and would have an IEP. Not because he needs it. But because there’d be no reason not to. No prejudice, no self-doubt, no heads up our derrières. Our kids are different and that’s a good thing.

Also, my kid can name more polygons than yours, so there.



*Even this one seems slanted as Amish children will probably reach it earlier.

**There is, of course, nothing wrong with those professions. My dad was a truck driver, and a damned good one.

***I’m not counting the stick figure inventory of your family and pets festooning the back window of your crossover SUV pretending to not be a station wagon.

****I have no idea what the female version of this is, but I think the metaphor is universal.


3 thoughts on “The Contest

  1. A handful of my reproductively active friends have developmentally disabled children (autism spectrum disorder and others). This game is even less fun for them.

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