Written by Taylor Glenn

In The News

It’s not about you: The army of competitive parents

Everyone wants their kids to do well, but how far is too far? Well, if you’re verbally abusing a teenage referee, says Taylor Glenn, you’re already there.

competitive mums' race

All illustrations by Harriet Carmichael.

Picture the intensity of a typical football match. Sweat pours down the players’ cheeks as they assemble in carefully rehearsed formation. The spectators spur them on with a heady mix of enthusiasm and vitriol. Eyes on each other, on the opposition and on the goal, the players manoeuvre. They’ve got the focus of chess players and the determination of lions stalking prey. Pass. Kick. Goal! Rejoice. But – it’s a crossbar rebound. The ref makes the call: no goal. The enraged crowd retaliates. “You’re a fucking disgrace! You don’t know what you’re fucking doing!” one man screams.

Typical behaviour, except in this true story, the players are nine years old. The crowd was made up of their parents. And the referee was a 14-year-old girl. It strikes me as darkly funny and tragically clichéd, and brings up intrusive memories of Sarah Palin quipping about pit bull soccer moms through Vaseline-glazed teeth.

At first I chuckled at the sad image of these poor kids caught between their impulse to play and their parents’ desperate need for them to win, until I picture them actually having to go home with these assholes.

“Turns out that by London standards, I was way behind in the education game. You’re supposed to map out their education before they’ve left the uterus or they’re screwed.”

I got my first taste of competitive parenting when my daughter was about 17 months old and I attended a local ‘navigating the UK education system’ seminar. Ignorant about how things worked here, I planned to bust out some self-deprecating jokes about how neurotic I was to attend a seminar so early.

Once there, a woman looked me up and down and said, “You’re ahead of the game!” “Ha ha, yes…” I began my prepared speech, before realising she didn’t yet know my daughter’s age. Looking around, it dawned on me that I was one of the only women there who wasn’t heavily pregnant or cradling a newborn. She had assumed I was early on in my pregnancy and ready to enrol the embryo at Glendower Prep.

enroling mums“Oh, mine’s at home. She’s almost 18 months.” Gasps. Turns out that by London standards, I was way behind in the education game. You’re supposed to map out their education before they’ve left the uterus or they’re screwed.

Google “competitive parenting” and you’ll be greeted with a barrage of articles warning of its perils, slamming its participants and finger-wagging its many suspected causes (hang your giant head in shame, Facebook). Studies emerging suggest the consequences of extreme helicopter parenting are pretty dire: a generation of stressed, often practically inept and emotionally empty young people who don’t know how to exist unless they’re being the best at something. And even then, they can’t feel happy, because they’ve been taught they have to be the best for someone else.

“If you’re not competing, then you’re coddling and being too soft. If you aren’t toughening them up for the realities of life, you’re setting them up for disappointment, failure and weird cult-member traits.”

Curiously, every parent I know likes to showcase just how non-competitive they are in public: “We just want Daenerys to be happy and learn at her own pace!” they insist. I do the same. Have I just surrounded myself with more sensible people, or are we yet to fall prey to our competitive impulses as our children grow? This drive to make our children perform, to excel, has to be coming from a deeper place if so many parents can have warning signs thrown at them and still verbally abuse a child who’s refereeing other children at football.

Just this week I passed a father in my local park who was absolutely raging at his young son, who was trying to learn how to ride a bike. “PEDAL!” he screamed. “YOU’RE NOT PEDALLING! WHY AREN’T YOU PEDALLING!?” Besides thinking to myself that his kid is going to simply adore cycling, I wondered if I would find myself acting the same way in a few years, unaware of how I appeared?

One thing which isn’t helping modern parents is the constant contradiction in messages. If you’re not competing, then you’re coddling and being too soft. If you aren’t toughening them up for the realities of life, you’re setting them up for disappointment, failure and weird cult-member traits.

angry footy dadThese polarised debates sidestep what I see as the real issue: that there’s a fundamental difference between parenting from your own fears and interests versus the reality of what your children really need. In trying to micro-manage kids’ every move with the aim of constant success, we’re taking away their chance at independence and emotional health and resilience. It’s parenting from a deeply fearful position rather than a confident one.

So maybe the parent who yelled those words at the match was really just projecting what he felt about himself as a parent: “You’re a fucking disgrace. You don’t know what you’re fucking doing.” Me neither, man. But let’s do it for the children.

@taylorglennUK

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Written by Taylor Glenn

Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.