How to Stop Competitive Parenting From Ruining Friendships
Five strategies for handling competitive parenting and protecting friendships.
Posted May 15, 2018
Whether we like it or not, parenting has become a competitive sport. Kids are measured and tested and compared at their earliest stages—when did she talk?When did he walk? When did she start reading? Did he get picked for the travel team?...
I remember when my son was growing up, the comparisons and comments from friends felt omnipresent. We all want our children to be “stars.” However, too often we forget that children are individuals—you’ve probably heard that over and over—each developing at his or her own pace. Intellectually, most of us accept that. Emotionally it's harder to accept.
Social comparison triggers our feelings of envy and anxiety. Friendships easily become fragile and frayed under the best circumstances. However, when a friend tells you her three-year-old is reading, you may silently feel like a failure and wonder why your same-age child isn’t reading. These thoughts and feelings can start to negatively impact your mental state, and result in behaviors that begin to affect the quality of your friendships.
5 Strategies to Handle Competitive Parenting
I asked my colleague, Dr. Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, about how to manage these situations to avoid sabotaging our relationships with other parents.
1. When you feel competitive with your parent friends you can fall into passive-aggressive patterns of baiting and antagonizing each other. Basically they can become frenemies. When this happens, you might blame your friend(s), but when you look more realistically at your conversations, antagonizing each other is a two-way street. Try taking a two-week (or month, if you can) hiatus from saying anything you expect will provoke a reaction in your friends and see if you can break the cycle of mutual antagonism.
2. Competitive parenting is contagious. When you deal with other competitive parents, it's easy to feel annoyed and anxious that they are triggering your own sense of competitiveness (which lurks just below the surface for most of us!). Instead, try focusing of the positives you get out of the relationship: What are her strengths? For example, a friend might be someone who has great ideas for games for entertaining your kids, or she’s fantastic about telling you about resources in your local community that you weren't aware of, or she gives you new ideas for meals and snacks your child might like. It's ok for people not to be perfect. A friend’s competitiveness isn't her most endearing quality, but focusing on her good qualities protects the friendship.
Research has shown that a huge percentage of our relationships with others are what's known as ambivalent relationships, meaning they are the source of both positive and negative emotions. It's not unusual for parent-friend relationships to have that same dynamic.
3. You can’t stop other parents from bragging, but you can control how you hear it and react. Think about what type of reaction is least likely to encourage future boasting, while not hurting your friendship. The polar opposite reactions of either biting back or gushing will both likely lead to more boasting, whereas a more neutral or disinterested reaction is likely to lead to less bragging...eventually. A trap is that reacting neutrally may lead to a temporary spike in boasting initially. This is known as an “extinction burst.” When people don't get the reinforcement they expect, they often temporarily increase that behavior, trying to get the reaction they want. Once they finally realize they won't get it, they give up or at least reduce the annoying behavior to something they do occasionally.
4. Recognize that competitive parenting—whether on your part or from others—is mostly just a sign that people love their kids and want the best for them. Although there can be psychological issues that underlie competitive parenting, such as people who see their children and their achievements as an extension of themselves, you can also view it as a reflection of how much parents care about their kids. It's their care and concern spilling over. When you view it this way, you'll feel less annoyed, less anxious or concerned.
5. Note when you're overly personalizing things your friends say. Make sure you don't interpret your friends' comments as relevant to you (or directed at you) when they're not. For example, if a friend says "I'm doing X, Y, Z with my child," it doesn't mean that you need to do that, or that they're even suggesting you should be doing the same. We all have our own strengths as parents.
Occasionally, hearing about something a friend is doing with their child may make you realize you really should be working on a skill with your child or giving your child more opportunities to have a particular experience. However, you don't need to be doing everything all the time, or be on the same learning schedule as anyone else. Be guided by your child, not by your parent friends. Observing and interacting with your child are the best ways to understand his personality, what he is most interested in, and what he is ready for.
Raising children should not be a competition as much as it feels that way. You can’t control what other parents do and say, but you can adjust your own thinking and reactions. Doing so will help you avoid being swept up in the competition and you’ll be less worried and stressed about your own parenting decisions. Throughout your child’s ages and stages, you will be able to enjoy your child and your friends much more.
Copyright @2018 by Susan Newman
Also of interest: Can Mothers with Different Parenting Styles Remain Friends?
Boyes, Alice. (2018). The Healthy Mind Toolkit: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Own Way and Enjoy Your Life. New York: Tarcher/Perigee.