Ever feel like no matter how you’re raising your kid, someone else is better at this parenting thing than you? Yeah, me too.
I’m relatively new to the parenting gig – Miles, our only son, is one year old – but one thing is clear already. We parents are overwhelmed at the avalanche of big data coming down the Science Mountain, burying us neck-deep in the belief that no matter who we are, no matter how we’re parenting our kids, we are probably doing it wrong.
Add to this a blizzard of parenting books and blogs – not to mention our own parents’ opinions, snide remarks from random strangers in the grocery store, and the blitzkrieg that is social media – and suddenly we can find ourselves paralyzed, afraid to make any parenting choices at all.
Spank your kids? It’ll probably turn them violent. Don’t spank your kids? They’ll never move out of the house. And somehow, both breastfeeding and using formula are linked to cases of autism. How’s a parent supposed to win?
Most of us would probably teach our kids NOT to compare themselves to their peers if we saw it was becoming unhealthy. But we parents are just as prone to the comparison trap as our kids are. And comparison, as Mark Twain said, is “the death of joy.”
Case in point, this happened at our son’s 18-month checkup:
“Here’s your son,” Friendly Doctor says. He draws a circle on one of a bundle of papers he handed us a minute ago. “Fifth percentile for weight.”
A moment of silence as my wife and I exchange a look. She speaks first. “OK, so, um…is that bad?”
Friendly Doctor shrugs. “I mean…you’re feeding him, right? Should be fine.”
Thanks a lot, Doc. Not very reassuring for a pair of helpless overachievers like us.
The graph our Friendly Doctor is referring to, of course, is the oh-so-helpful infant BMI chart. It contains our son’s measurements – height, weight, head circumference. And, it compares his growth against every other kid in the country. The purpose of this tool is to give parents the earliest possible indication of health issues with our kid, like obesity. (Or apparently, in our case, malnutrition.) Hence, my wife and I get to experience the anxiety of having our baby’s literal growth graphed against every other kid in the country. God bless America!
I feel like I should be clear: We do feed our kid, and the doctor did assure us our son really is healthy. (We do live in the world’s most overweight nation, so being underweight by comparison might not be the worst thing after all.) And the very fact that I feel like I should be clear about this, reveals my deep, unrelenting insecurity as a parent. Which of course, stems from my deep, unrelenting insecurity as a human being on planet earth.
Some of it turns into envy, too. You’re more likely to envy people who are a lot like you, which in my case are youngish dads of toddlers. Already, it’s tempting to look at the milestones of my friends’ kids and get paranoid if my son hasn’t hit those milestones yet. The Spiral really gets going when one tiny difference in our kids’ abilities – lately, it’s how many words they know – gets amplified into a value judgment on my identity as a father.
What starts as, “Huh, my son doesn’t know his elbow from a hole in the ground,” turns into, “He’ll drop out of school because I’m not a good father,” which turns into, “I have no business parenting my kid. He’d be better off without me.” I can actually believe these lies, which make me harsh with myself, defensive with my wife, and unfairly critical to my son.
Then, out of insecurity I start to look for the flaws in other parents and even their kids. I can hold two nasty, contradictory beliefs at the same time: my child is helplessly behind everyone else, AND everyone else is probably the worst kid ever. It’s absurd and I know it doesn’t make any sense…but there I go again.
The truth is, there’s no escaping the comparison trap. It’s human nature. Plus, I’m part of the most measured and tracked generation in history. It started when we were kids. Schools tracked us early on – straight-A or IEP, college-bound or GED. We were told it was good for us and in some ways, it was. But we just sort of got used to this twitchy feeling in our gut, the one that tells us whatever we’re doing, somewhere, someone is doing it better.
It’s exhausting. It’s unhealthy. The good news is, there’s a way to break the Spiral.
The Bible, believe it or not, can help us do this. A follower of Jesus named Paul encourages us to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In other words, we can’t control the thoughts that pop into our heads, but we CAN control how we respond to them.
And no matter what you believe, you really can do this! It’s the best antidote to the poison of comparison. Remember, the real source of approval and self-worth is not your success as a parent. It comes from God. The One who made you, who calls you His kid. God loves you and your kid, and he’s got things under control. He doesn’t grumble in heaven about how delayed your progress is or how he wishes things would come easier to you. He delights in you (Psalm 149:4), and he wants you to feel the same head-over-heels delight for your own kid.
Now, in an article about how much comparison sucks, I’m not about to make myself appear perfect, because I don’t want to make you feel like you don’t measure up. That said, here are a couple ways to take your comparison thoughts captive and refocus on what really matters: loving God, and loving your kids.
- Cultivate joy. When we aren’t doing things that bring us deep joy, we can get anxious and depressed at other people’s joy. So prioritize joyful things. Go for a run. Paint. Build something. Make a list of things about your kid that bring you joy. If you’re experiencing joy, so will your kids.
- Put things in context. Whatever’s nagging you – your friend’s daughter started walking before your daughter, the neighbors got pregnant before you, this dad’s wearing one of those baby-wrap thingies – consider whether this will still matter to you in, say, 10 years. If not, let it go.
- There are “good ideas,” and “different ideas.” “Good ideas” are parenting techniques that seem healthy and doable in your family context. You might take one or two of those good ideas and apply them, and your life will be improved. “Different ideas” are just that – different. They might work for another family but will just add chaos and frustration in yours. You can appreciate the diversity in parenting styles, say “Good for them!” and move on.
- Raise YOUR kids, not someone else’s. Comparison also tricks us into inflating our own sense of worth. We can trick ourselves into thinking we’re the expert on parenting – like our ways are automatically the best ways – which is awkward for our loved ones and alienating to other parents. No one wants to have a playdate with someone who’s always telling other people how to raise their kids. Because no one wants to feel any more like a dingbat than they already do.
- Pay attention to the source. If social media gets you down, reduce the amount of screen time in your life. If a particular person gets you frustrated about your kid, try to see them less often. And if it’s a super negative internal voice still hanging around from middle school, you’re allowed to tell it to shut up and fall in a sinkhole. When you manage or cut off the source of your comparison thoughts, you’ll have fewer of them.
There’s a moment in The Chronicles of Narnia when Aslan says, “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.” I think it’s a lovely reminder: God’s got a great story to tell every kid (and parent).
I want to believe that for me and for my son – no matter what his BMI is at his next checkup.