I know I shouldn’t do it. I know that every person is uniquely gifted. I know I should love my child for who she is, and not compare her to other kids.
Buuuut… I can’t help myself. We’re hard-wired to compare ourselves (and our kids) to others. And with developmental timelines so prevalent at pediatricians’ offices and in parenting books, it’s no surprise that I am constantly comparing my daughter’s development with “standard” growth and with other kids I see.
And when she “measures up” I breathe a sigh of relief. I might even mentally pat myself on the back if she’s ahead of the curve. But when she’s “behind,” I worry. I think of things that might be hindering her, ways I can help her catch up. I wonder if I’ve done something to hold her back. Cue the mom-guilt.
Just the other day, we were at the swimming pool. Earlier in the week, we’d been there with friends, who have a younger child who was happily swimming around on her own with the help of a swim vest. She likely will be swimming independently very soon.
My daughter, on the other hand, only wants to hold onto me. She will use a “noodle,” but only if I hold onto at least one hand. Up until then, I’d felt really great about where she was: she loves being in the water, asks to go swimming often, is experimenting with different positions in the water, and even has begun to get comfortable with getting her head wet.
But as we got into the pool, I began worrying about her being “behind.” Am I being too easy on her? Should I be more forceful in nudging her toward swimming on her own? Should I try to get her to wear a swim vest and paddle around without me? Maybe I should put her in swim lessons? Our neighbor coaches swimming. Maybe she’d give us a few pointers.
On and on my thoughts raced. I could feel the tension in my shoulders and neck. My jaw was clenched.
And then I laughed. It’s just swimming! Does it really matter whether she learns when she’s three or when she’s 8? I took a few deep breaths. She’ll learn to swim when she’s ready, I reminded myself. What’s most important right now is that we continue to build a relationship of love and trust. She will benefit most from the time together being happy and relaxed.
Letting go of the yardstick
Many of us don’t want to be in the game of competitive parenting. So what can we do when we find ourselves pushing our kids to be harder, better, faster, stronger?
- Be in the moment: What is happening right now? What is bringing your child joy? How are they stretching themselves? Focusing on the present helps relieve the anxiety we feel when we are worried about the future. What is wonderful and amazing about the moment you are in?
- Remind yourself of what you really believe. When I get caught up in comparisons, I give in to the false belief that my daughter must be at least “average” in all things in order to be successful. It’s also an illusion that as a parent, I have the ability to make sure that she is great at all the “important” things in life. But my deepest values tell a different story. Each person is unique. We each have own own individual gifts, interests, talents, struggles, and handicaps. We are all equally worthy of love, support, encouragement, and belief in our ability to bless the world.
- Recall times when your child reached a new milestone. Recalling past successes gives us concrete examples of our children’s growth, and can help us trust this natural process. Even if their path looks a little different than “typical,” nearly all kids learn to walk, talk, dress themselves, share their toys, read, and thousands of other things. My daughter had a tongue and lip tie that we didn’t realized needed correcting until she was almost 4 months old. As she approached her 6 month check-up, she still wasn’t babbling. I began to worry about her language development, wondering if the tongue-tie had delayed her. But she started babbling just a few days after I brought the issue up. Now, at almost 3, she is talking up a storm. She loves to sing, and to experiment with made up words. She has no trouble getting her point across! When I recall this, it helps put me at ease that she is developing just right for her.
- Treasure your child’s unique way of learning. My daughter definitely learns by trial and error. When she makes a mistake, she tries again and again, until she reaches a certain level of mastery. Most of the time, my job is to get out of her way, give her the time and space she needs to practice the new skill, and to step in if she’s starting to get unproductively frustrated. What does your child need? A cheerleader, a spotter, a model, a hand-holder?
Once I decided to let go of the outcome of our pool time, the tension in my body released.
We started to sing some songs and splash around. I started to relax. Then she surprised me. She said, “Hold my tummy.” Then she kicked off my legs toward the wall. When she got there, she reached out for me to pull her back to me. “Again!” she cried. Even though the distance was small (she was touching neither the wall nor me for about 2 inches) it felt like an incredible leap forward.
She spent the rest of the time in the pool “swimming” from me to the wall. Every so often she would stop to say, “I’m having so much fun!” I was having fun too, watching her enjoy herself, and watching her confidence grow. Her head dunked under a few times. A few weeks ago, she would have cried, but she just shook her head, blew her nose, or wiped her eyes. She even asked me to dunk her twice. She was still uncertain about it, but I could see that she was pushing herself.
Perhaps she would have made the same leap had I pushed her, but without the same level of joy. But it could have completely backfired, leading to her more clingy and less confident in the water.
And while it she made amazing progress this particular time, it would have been an equally wonderful experience if it had been just another day in the pool. It’s not the progress that’s important, but the unconditional acceptance and love that I can bring to any pursuit of hers.
She doesn’t need swim lessons. She doesn’t need me to make sure she’s not “falling behind” or “missing out.” She needs me to show up with my whole heart, to soak up the gift of these fleeting moments of toddlerhood, and to delight in the wonderful ways she is growing and changing.
She needs me to be buoy her with unconditional love and support, so that when the storms of life hit, she can hold her head above water.
Until then, we’ll be having fun just spashin’ around.
What about you? Do you play the “comparison game” like me? If so, how do you struggle? Tell us in the comments.