I read a post recently bemoaning the fact that so many parents use social media as a means of boasting about their children and about their lives. This got me thinking about the whole concept of competitive parenting. I think we all know parents who have a habit of making us feel slightly (or very) wanting in our abilities, whether it be the ones who always seem to be wonderfully turned out every single day of their lives, or the ones whose children excel at every sport, are top of the class academically, and who get the best part in the class assembly or school play, or the ones who seem to know every other parent in the school but who can never quite remember your name. It can be difficult not to feel resentment in the face of such people, to feel that their successes are being flaunted but is this really the case? Quite often when you dig a little deeper beneath the surface you realise that things are not quite as perfect as they seem. Quite often it turns out that the very people who you feel are in control are those who see you as being the one to envy.
At one school my children attended there was a mum who always arrived looking absolutely perfect: beautifully co-ordinated outfit, flawless make up and not one hair out of place. Every day, rain or shine, she looked impeccable. How on earth did she do it? The rest of us sometimes looked good but more often, especially at morning drop off, would look as if we’d hurriedly pulled on whatever we could lay our hands on as we fled from a burning building. Everyone viewed this poor woman with suspicion and unease until we found out that she had problems sleeping and would always get out of bed at 5 am and then spend the next hour and a half getting ready for the day. The only way she could cope with facing the world was by making sure she was wearing her protective armour and she in fact envied all the other mums who seemed to have so much confidence that they didn’t need to preen themselves before leaving the house.
Another mum I knew from years back was fiercely competitive about her children’s sports achievements and would do everything in her power to ensure that they were the best at everything -if they didn’t show any aptitude at a sport then they weren’t allowed to play it. She would coach them, regulate their food intake to ensure their energy levels were boosted and would run along the sidelines at a match shouting instructions and drowning out everyone else. The children were naturally sporty anyway and would probably have done pretty well without all this effort but that wasn’t good enough for her; they had to be the best. All the parents of children who never made the school teams felt intimidated by her and felt that she looked down on them when they repeated their mantra ‘well, it’s all about the taking part isn’t it?’ until one day when she explained why it was so important to her. Basically she felt that her children were isolated socially because they found it difficult to make friends and play in groups and that the only way she could get them to socialise was to involve them in sports. It allowed them to be with other people their own age, forced them to co-operate with them, albeit within the strict confines of the sport’s rules, and also gave them some much needed self esteem when their team won. Without this she didn’t think they would ever learn to be with other children. By making them the best she possibly could at sport she earned them an element of popularity among their peers that they simply couldn’t have found by themselves.
We often envy those parents with children who get straight As all through their school career but why?Sometimes academic success is down to incredibly hard work, sometimes it is just an accident of birth – being born with the right gene pool that will provide both intelligence and an absence of any learning issues. Do we really want parents to feel that it is wrong to celebrate their children’s success? Just because a parent reports on social media sites that their child has got 10 A*s at GCSE doesn’t mean that they are boasting and saying ‘ha, ha my child’s done better than yours!’. Surely we’re all mature enough to be able to see this? Surely we can pleased for them and still take enormous pleasure in our own children’s achievements?
Does it really matter if someone reports that their children have been given ten Easter eggs each yet our own only have one egg? Surely people have the right to make their own decisions about these things based on their own individual circumstances. It’s the same with Christmas and birthday presents. Every family has their own traditions, there is no right number of presents or correct value of money to be spent. Even within families things change from year to year based on what else is going on. Children seem able to cope with this so why can’t adults? And just because someone may tweet about chocolate and toys doesn’t mean that they only see Easter and Christmas as commercial events; we have no idea what else they may do to celebrate these occasions. We are only seeing one small part of their family celebrations.
What we see of people on social media or at the school gates is just a snapshot of who they really are. We judge people so quickly and often have no idea of what is really going on in their lives. We take one isolated comment and read so much into it with no idea of the true context of that comment. People see a child having a tantrum and immediately decide that it is down to bad parenting – what about the other 99.9% of the time when that child behaves perfectly? People hear a parent shouting and shake their heads in disapproval not realising that the child has hearing problems. We see a photograph of a child with a huge heap of expensive looking presents and tut to ourselves without knowing that the child’s family has just experienced a traumatic year and desperately needed to celebrate their first good day in an exuberant fashion. We read a mum’s account of the craft activities she has organised with her children and see it as boasting without realising that it is the first time she has enjoyed playing with her children.We visit friends’ houses and judge them to be too tidy for comfort or not tidy enough.
Around ten years ago I remember going Christmas shopping feeling very stressed indeed. I was in the process of packing up our house as we were moving two weeks before Christmas. I had four children under ten and was seven months pregnant with number five, my mother was terminally ill and I knew she had very little time left, I had just broken my small toe and so could only hobble around in an oversized pair of trainers belonging to my husband, I had shopping to do but no desire whatsoever to do it. At one point I was stopped by someone who was collecting for Charity, a Buddhist priest who commented on my calm aura. I was absolutely amazed and told him that nothing could be further than the truth. Even when I told him what was going on in my life he insisted that my aura was calm. It’s something that I have been told by others. My friends laugh at my social media name of Frazzled Mum and say that I am always really calm but the truth is on the inside I often feel like my life is spiralling out of control. Somewhere along the line though I must have decided to project a calm persona to the world, perhaps in the hope that it will then become true.
We all have to stop judging people and reading too much into what people say or do. Very people expose the real them to the outside world. We all have a persona which enables us to go out and face everyone else. We save our inner self for our homes, for our closest family members and for our very best friends. The rest of the time we are the public face that we choose to wear, the public face that enables us to function in an alien world. Let’s try to be kinder to one another and not see someone else’s success in terms of ourselves being failures. Let’s stop the judging.