For kids' sake, don't act on those competitive parental impulses
Q: How do I get over my innate competitive urge when it comes to my sons? The elder will start school next year, and while I assume rationally that he can't be the amazing exceptional one in everything, as I embarrassingly frequently like to believe, I do actually feel my mood change when I get a blast of reality that other peers may be better than he is at something. Silly and shameful, but it seems to happen, and I don't want to be that kind of person. Do you have any managing-expectations tips to suffocate this silliness of mine?
A: The vaccine against mine-is-better-than-yours expectations is one you already possess: the knowledge that someone is always better at something. Right now, it might be mostly abstract, but as other kids routinely do various things better than your kid (because even if your kid does excel, it's likely to be in only one or two areas), that knowledge will be real and right in your face.
In fact, the number of "amazing exceptional" people is, by definition, minuscule — so not only are the odds in favor of your child being average, it's also likely that the kids who beat your sons at one thing or another will be average, too, in the grand scheme of things.
If it helps, here's a memo to tack onto your mental bulletin board:
Number of players per Major League Baseball team: 25.
Number of U.S. Rhodes Scholars selected annually: 32.
Number of babies born in the United States every year: over 4 million.
But there's good news in that memo. Namely, you can consider the pressure off. You, personally, cannot and will not launch your boys to the upper echelons of achievement.
The kids who stand out among the annual 4 million do so not because their parents expertly fanned every little ember of promise, from genome to graduation. Instead, at work is a series of factors akin to planetary alignment. Among them are attentive (but not smothering) parents, but also among those factors are failure, frustration, devastating setbacks and limitations.
So when you botch something parentally, care about something ridiculously, resent your sons' peers irrationally, feel free to comfort yourself with the possibility that this might be the very botching that accidentally deflects your boys onto their paths to glory. Also feel free to laugh at your competitive impulses because they're normal. (It's acting on them that gets you into trouble.)
Seeing the normalcy and humor will help you keep these impulses safely inside, where they can't hurt your children. And they do hurt; parentally imposed expectations of high performance breed anxiety and self-doubt, and often divert kids from paths they'd choose if they weren't consumed by pleasing you.
The way to help your kids — and society — isn't to raise scholars or stars, but instead to raise them to like (not adore) themselves. The best way to get there is to encourage your boys to work hard, and to keep an eye out for their own interests and strengths. The best way to quash competitive urges in you is to watch your boys develop and gain fulfillment from their hard work. Which is how healthy stars are born anyway.