To Push or Not to Push: competitive parenting revisited

We all want the best for our children. We want them to do the best and to be the best, and, oh yes, be the most happy as well. We want to be proud of them, and for them to be proud of themselves, while at the same time being thoroughly well-mannered, modest, popular – oh yes, especially popular! – young people. Obviously. Question is, how best to achieve all this?

The first thing we have to accept is that it is not going to happen. No-one can be best at absolutely everything, and the trouble with trying too hard at the impossible, is that it inevitably leads to unhappiness. So, if we are serious about the most-happy bit, then we have to learn to ease off a bit on some of the other mosts.

This bit I think some parents struggle with. I’m in my third year, now, of volunteering in my child’s classroom. I’ve watched several reach standards in reading I wouldn’t have thought possible two years ago. And some others though still competent are less the all-round stand-out performers that they seemed to be in reception.

This is inevitable. In some cases, it’s just a question of younger, English-as 2nd-Language kids catching up. These catching-up kids, moreover, not used to thinking of themselves as “the best”, manage their pride quite gracefully, without contingent assumptions.

The fall from former prominence, on the other hand, can be accompanied by an unpleasant new attitude. One very bright boy, always exuberant, has now turned rebellious. He uses extended toilet breaks to take 15 minutes off at every opportunity, especially when he feels challenged. From a bouncing reception child all-eager to show off his superior knowledge, he has become sullen and reluctant to put in any obvious effort at all.  I don’t know for sure what is going on in his mind, but it could be, why should I keep bothering? I tried that, and it’s not working; I can’t win easily any more, and nobody seems to care.

Do I blame over-ambitious parents, who, overriding their 3-year-old’s urge to muck about in the sandpit, drilled him with phonics in order to ensure “a head-start” in reception?  Or compelled him to an endless round of pre-school and after-school classes while neglecting his need to spend at least an hour a day lolling horizontally on the kitchen floor making weird noises with cars, cardboard boxes and a grubby roll of masking tape?  

Without knowing the parents I couldn’t say, but I do cringe when I see fathers in particular urging very young boys to always be the best, not just in terms of themselves, but in terms of the entire class.  One father I spoke to considered instilling early competitiveness essential and suggested that any parent who doesn’t do likewise is obviously not ambitious for their child. Others can be slightly more subtle about it; “You’re still only on green book-band! Did you know Sophie’s on black already?!”  Either way, the message gets through.

Don’t these parents see that their child’s educational career stretches out over the decades before them, and what’s most likely to pay off in the long term is what keeps them going in good spirits today? Intense competitiveness is a ball when you’re winning, but crushingly hard to deal with when you’re not, whether in reading book charts or sports day races. Especially at six years old.

If keeping it fun-for-its-own-sake means staying three book-bands below Sophie, then that’s by far the best place to be. It may well be that Sophie is a natural and effortless genius; there must be some of those in every school. It may well be that precocious reading will remain her thing for the rest of her life, whatever that may mean at 65. But it may also be that come year 4, or year 6, or year 13, Sophie will have decided like the above little boy that she’s had enough of this must-always-be-the-best-lark and decide to opt out of reading altogether.

In the meantime, the less-precocious children will have found their own things, in which competent reading will most likely play a part, as it does in most modern briefs. But by then relative book-bands in Year 2 will seem like very small fry indeed.



About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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