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A parent contacted me last week, asking for advice about her two-year-old’s behavior. The event that triggered her email was a family picnic with her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law’s family. The sister-in-law’s three-year-old children were perfectly behaved and her own son was not. What, she asked me, was she doing wrong?

If you’ve ever been on either side of a situation like this, you know how your children’s behavior can make you feel terrific or can make you feel terrible. It’s easy to think when our kids perform perfectly in public, especially in comparison to other children, that it’s all because of our own wonderful parenting. And when our kids perform awfully, embarrassing us in front of the very people we’d like to impress, it’s easy to think that it’s all our fault.

What bothers us about our two-year-old children continues to bother us as our children get older. When our school-age child doesn’t read books above his grade level as his cousins do or our child doesn’t shine on the soccer field like the girl next-door or our teen doesn’t get so high an SAT score as someone else we know… it rankles. And one of the reasons it rankles is that the parents of those star children seem to rub it in. They act like winners and we feel like losers. But neither position is correct.

We live in a society where any activity can become competitive. If we let ourselves, we can feel superior or inferior in just about anything. And because many of us live through our children, wanting them to be everything we are not including everything we could have been but never achieved, and because we believe our children are “the best” and want them to be “the best” all the time, this competitive spirit infects our parenting. The impulse for social comparison becomes almost irresistible. We cannot think of anything our children do without immediately considering how they compare to other kids.

This is unfair, to ourselves and to our children. I invite you to stop.

You are invited to consider your children all by themselves, without making any comparison to anybody else. Instead of comparing your kids to their cousins or children you’ve heard of or children you’ve imagined, try comparing them to their own past selves. Notice the progress your kids are making in becoming more accomplished human beings. Notice where they are not making progress and consider how to help them. But “help them” means “help them to become more themselves” not “help them become more like some model child” or “help them be better than another child.”

And you are invited to be patient. Each child takes her own path and every child develops on an individual timeline. Getting anxious and antsy helps no one, not yourself and not your kid.

Admittedly, this is difficult when your mother-in-law is watching with that little frown between her eyebrows and her other grandchildren are showing your child up. But acting serene and unconcerned about your kid’s natural kid-ness is more reassuring to your critics than is acting like you think they’re right.

And if you are the one with the perfect children, cut your sister-in-law some slack. You know your kids aren’t always so angelic as they seem right now.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.