Carolyn Hax: Avoid competitive parenting

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 9, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I live in a Washington, D.C., suburb where the school environment is highly competitive. More than 20 percent of the class gets straight A’s, and many students are accomplished in their sport, music or other extracurriculars.

My children are not quite straight A students (mostly A’s, couple of B’s) and good at their respective extracurriculars but not among the best, either. I dislike attending award ceremonies or other events like it where everyone else’s children are winning the awards and mine are getting “participation awards.”

My children are healthy and well-adjusted, which is more than enough to make me happy. I do feel anxious, however, that my kids won’t go on to good colleges or a good job because they are not the best.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Where All the Children Are Above Average

Competitive child-rearing might be the most popular sport in some parts of America, particularly affluent ones.

The best outcome for your kids — best best, with no meaningful challengers — is for them to find a place in life that feels right to them based on their skills, their temperaments and their passions. That some of your kids’ A’s slip to B’s and some of their peers run/swim/flip/play/dance/sculpt/sing better is not even remotely an obstacle to this outcome. After all, those everyone-else’s-kids getting all the awards will get their butts kicked, too, probably as soon as they move on to the next level of competition.

What often does interfere with finding one’s right place in life is a preoccupation with being the best, or with getting into (the best) college, or with gaining whatever form of recognition is most valued in their peer group. This is the stuff that scrambles the very signals they need to be listening for, the signals of satisfaction with what they’re doing vs. what they’re achieving. An excessive focus on winning also makes people more likely to get intimidated or discouraged and quit.

When people focus instead on what suits their interests and strengths, they’re more likely to find both a revenue stream to support themselves and a resiliency stream to carry them through bumpy times.

Please trust this, and free yourself to like them for who they are instead of worrying about who they’ll be.

You didn’t actually ask a question — does this answer it?

Re: D.C. Competitiveness:

If it makes the letter writer feel better, I think that growing up in a large, competitive environment is very good preparation for the real world. My significant other grew up in a small town where he was constantly recognized for achievement as the big fish in a little pond. I grew up in a large urban area where I did well — along with many, many of my peers. My experience seems to mirror more closely our adult lives, where it’s most important to be comfortable with what you have and what you are doing rather than deriving happiness and self-worth from external recognition and standards.

Anonymous

Memo to small-town parents: YOU ARE NOT FREAKING OUT ENOUGH ABOUT YOUR KIDS’ VIABILITY IN A COMPETITIVE WORLD.

Kidding. (See above.)

I think the reasoning that people do better as adults when they’re allowed to stumble toward their own bliss as kids is universally and pan-geographically applicable.

Fair?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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