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Tim Elmore

On Leading the Next Generation

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Parents: How to Have Patience for Yourself in a Culture of Comparison

I remember overhearing a dad talk about what he’d just done for his children. Actually, he was bragging about what he’d done for them. This man just returned from a trip to the Swiss Alps where he and his kids had skied together in new matching snowsuits with brand new ski equipment. Upon their return, they stopped in New York to “see a Broadway show and to consume some of the best food anywhere.”

After hearing his story, I suddenly felt inferior.

Throughout my kids’ childhood, I worked to be an intentional father. I spent time with each of them, took them on daddy dates, and provided trips and toys appropriately. Along the way, however, I noticed something sinister happening between parents in my community. They prided themselves so much on their parent engagement that it became a kind of sport, competing with others in our community to see who was the best parent and which kids achieved the best awards and scholarships.

And then, it got worse. I began to witness parent shaming.

Parent shaming is, unfortunately, a new normal for millions of people. We are quick to judge in a world where critiques can be leveled on social media and where criticizers hide behind a screen. Sadly, those judgements are frequently made with incomplete information. Check out some of the preposterous mom shames I’ve heard recently:

  • One mom was shamed for a photo of her kids on the first day of school because they were wearing wrinkled t-shirts. 
  • Another mom was shamed for wearing makeup at her son’s soccer game. The game was on a Saturday, and she “shouldn’t be so pretentious.” 
  • Still another mom was shamed for not keeping “all of her child’s artwork” he created at school. They should all be posted. (Just get a bigger fridge.) 
  • Finally, another mom wrote: “Recently, my son—an only child—was bitten by a little girl at his daycare. The daycare director blamed us for not having more children, saying, ‘If he had a sibling, he would know what to do when a child bites him.'”

Three Unhealthy Parental Habits

Especially in middle class and upper-middle-class communities, parenting has evolved into these three experiences that happen in this order:

1. Comparison – Parents compare themselves to other families who seem to have the best vacations, best parties, and best technology. When these comparisons happen, they get down on themselves feeling inadequate about their parenting skills. 

2. Competition – Next they compete with other parents in their community to provide their kids with the latest products, trips, or clothes, doting over their children. Why? They feel better about themselves by winning this contest.

3. Consternation – Parents feel such a need to be perfect that they fall into a constant state of worry, fretting that they’ve failed to do something for their child, leaving them at a disadvantage and destined to need a therapist as an adult. 

Sometimes I wonder if our parenting challenges today are more about us than our kids. Kids basically need love, security, and provision while they’re growing up, but all the fuss about doing amazing things for them is more about displacing our own emotional deficits than genuinely meeting their needs. If we could never post any of our stories on social media or tell any of our stories to our friends, would we still be as passionate about the trips, treasures, and trophies we offer them? 

The Good News About What Matters

My recommendation to you in light of all this? Stop worrying. And please stop playing the “who’s the best parent in the community” game. 

Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, co-authors of the best-selling book Freakonomics, pored through a massive government database called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Starting in the late 1990s, the study followed 20,000 American children, collecting information on many aspects of their lives. Levitt and Dubner used the ECLS to determine what helps young children do well on tests.

What did they find out?

Believe it or not, the researched showed some unexpected findings:

  • It didn’t matter a whole lot if a parent read to his or her young children.
  • It didn’t matter a whole lot if a mother was at home full time with her kids.
  • It didn’t matter a whole lot if you lived in a good neighborhood.

While I believe in reading to kids, being attentive to them, and living in nice, safe neighborhoods, it’s interesting to note that these expected factors didn’t raise test scores in children later on. Good parenting usually boiled down to doing the basics well—making sure kids felt loved; providing square meals each day, and offering discipline and encouragement that cultivated responsibility. 

So give yourself a break. Give yourself grace. Kids don’t need perfect parents; in fact, being a perfectionist may do more harm than good. Sue Atkins wrote, “There is no such thing as a perfect parent. So just be a real one.” 

Haim Ginott echoed, “I have great faith in ‘ordinary parents.’ Who has a child’s welfare more at heart than his ordinary parent? It’s been my experience that when parents are given the skills to be more helpful, not only are they able to use these skills, but they infuse them with a warmth and a style that is uniquely their own.”

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Parents: How to Have Patience for Yourself in a Culture of Comparison