Monday, July 7, 2014

Competitive parenting, or lazy small talk?

It's a truth universally acknowledged that whenever you get a group of parents in a room, they will talk about their children. Some of these parents are so competitive they will use every excuse to tell you why their child is even more talented that Einstein, Usain Bolt and Beethoven combined. Some parents are just tactless, and will say one or more of these things parents should never say to one another. Some are interesting and entertaining. And the rest are probably just making small talk. 

We've all been there: the toddler and baby groups where parents awkwardly stand around watching their progeny play instruments or walk along a beam. On the face of it, the kids are what we have in common, so it's natural that most conversation focuses around them until we get to know each other better. How old are they? we ask. Oh, he's sitting/crawling/walking/ dancing under the limbo stick. Good for them, we say. My child can't sit/crawl/walk/ dance under the limbo stick without whacking his face. Isn't your baby big/small/hairy/bald? Isn't that nice?

I say all of those things with the best of them. Talking about the children is less cliched than talking about the weather, and much easier than talking about many of the things that truly interest me. I don't want to talk about the children all of the time, not really. I'd much rather discuss Thomas Piketty's theory on income inequality, whether you'd rather be a pirate or a ninja, or current events. But, most of the time, what falls out of my mouth is inane small talk. 

There have been times recently when I've realised with horror that my inane small talk could be construed as competitive parenting, especially when talking to mothers of children the same age as mine. I know plenty of women that rally against competitive parenting; blogging and raging about how we need to stop comparing our children to each other and so on. I agree with these women in theory. However, I suspect, that in many cases, a lot of this competitive parenting isn't competitive parenting at all, it's just lazy small talk. 

When your baby who can't crawl is sitting beside mine who can, and I ask how old they are, I'm not comparing the babies. I'm just making small talk. When you tell me that your baby is in fact a full month older than mine, I'm not giving you a judgmental look. I'm just tired. And if I comment on your child's size, I'm not hinting that you're responsible for worsening the obesity epidemic or that you don't feed your child anything except mung beans.  I probably just had a bad night last night with the kids and am not thinking about what I'm saying. I'm not judging you. In fact, to be perfectly honest and at risk of sounding harsh, I probably don't even care. 

I imagine that's the case for many parents that we encounter. I also suspect that if you are getting upset about the sheer number of competitive remarks and judgmental looks coming your way, it may be that you're muddling inane small talk and tired glances with competitive parenting, judgement and scorn. If that isn't the case, it may be that the best solution is to find a new toddler group to attend, where the other parents are less competitive. Or, ask the other women whether they'd rather be a pirate or a ninja, and see how the conversation goes from there. 

Since I realised that most of the other parents are probably just making small talk and that tired looks aren't judgment and scorn, I haven't actually bumped into a truly competitive parent in months, just other parents chatting about the one thing we have the most obviously in common. Unless the parent in question is bragging that their toddler is a sprinter with crazy hair who plays Moonlight Sonata on the piano with their feet. In that case, they probably are bragging, to which the obvious reply is "I'm Team Ninja, what about you?"

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