Stand at our neighborhood playground for a few minutes and you are almost sure to hear remarks like these:
“My child started walking at 8 months.”
“My two-year-old is speaking in full sentences.”
“My son was potty trained at 18 months.”
Some of these remarks have been made to me. And some, I am ashamed to admit, have been made by me. But no longer. I refuse to take part in these conversations any longer.
Why? Because they always make someone feel bad. Someone’s child always ends up on the downside of the comparison.
And that sucks.
Of course, intellectually we all know that our children are not going to be the best at everything. And for a while, I was mentally stuck there: Why was I letting these kinds of conversations make me feel bad? Surely, I know my kids were wonderful. Surely, I love them for who they are and not for what they accomplish.
But, then, I realized I was asking the wrong question.
Here’s the right question: Does talking about our children’s accomplishments lend itself to good conversation?
After all, as new parents, we are starved for adult conversation in general, and good conversation in particular. For me, and I am guessing for most of you, good conversations spring from shared passions, from trust, and from shared intimacies and reassurances.
Good conversations are easy to identify. They bring you back to your best self. The one who thinks about more than getting an extra hour of sleep, whether your baby needs a diaper change, and your ever-lengthening to do list. They provide support in times of need, and joy in times of flourishing.
Which brings us to the problem: Boasts about our children’s accomplishments are incompatible with good conversation. To see why, let’s review what happens when Parent A shares how amazing Child A is with another parent of a similarly aged child.
First, Parent B immediately compares their child to yours, and a. finds their child ahead, b. the same, or c. behind.
In case a, Parent B tells you how child B did something even more amazing at an even earlier age. Now Parent A gets to feel bad. And perhaps Parent B also feels bad, for having made Parent A feel bad in an attempt to reassure themselves.
In case b, Parent B shares that their child is similarly advanced, and may feel okay or even relieved, but probably also vaguely unsettled by having performed this unpleasant mental comparison, and by having been engaged in an unexpected game of one-upmanship.
In case c, Parent B feels bad, and likely tries to swallow that feeling, and say something complimentary about child A, and then quickly change the topic.
Do any of these scenarios sound like good conversation, the kind that brings you back to your best self? Nope. They don’t.
(Perhaps you can think of other ways this would play out. But I defy you to come up with a scenario where both parents come away feeling refreshed and enlivened.)
So why do we do it?
We do it partly because we experience a huge surge of pride and relief that comes when your child walks, talks, or meets a milestone early.
After all, early parenthood is a lesson in sacrifice. We tend to our baby’s every need; we wake multiple times a night. We give up long brunches, long walks with friends, long dinner conversations, really long everything.
(At some point after my second was born, I realized I had started to append the phrase “really quick” to every announcement that I was going to satisfy a personal need. “I’m just going to pee really quick.” “I’m going to shower really quick.”)
It’s an often thankless ordeal, and so as parents, we cherish the small rewards. The first smiles, the adorable babbles, the stumbling tottering first steps. As we should. As we must.
And we do it partly because we often “get away” with bragging, or humblebragging, about our own accomplishments.
By adulthood, most of us have gone our separate ways into diverse fields, and your successes are largely independent of my successes. There’s less of a man up, man down, zero-sum aspect to sharing our triumphs and tribulations. Which is not true of comparing, say, SAT scores or when our children reached certain milestones.
Moreover, when my friends are wonderful, funny, and successful that reflects well on me. They’re my friends after all. Presumably for some reason.
But this, I’m very sorry to say, is not true of my friend’s small child.
Now, I love my friends’ children, and believe that they are, by and large, adorable, quick-witted, charming creatures, but the fact remains that I cannot bask in the reflected glory of their accomplishments.
And finally, we do it partly because, although we are loathe to admit it, sometimes we want to make other people feel bad when we are feeling bad. Or sometimes we are too tired to care if we are making someone else feel bad, if we get to talk for a moment about something that makes us feel good.
So… let’s stop. Please?
To be clear, I am not asking you to never talk about your child’s accomplishments, or to bury your pride in your child. Not at all.
What I am saying is think about your audience. There’s a right audience and a wrong audience for sharing your child’s accomplishments. Grandmas, grandpas, your spouse will all glow with pride along with you. So share these wonderful moments with the people who can fully appreciate them.