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July 22, 2016

One-upmanship can be rife among modern mothers and often leads to stress and unhappiness. Psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings explains where it starts and how to cope without getting caught up in it. 

Our generation is lucky enough to have the internet, houses filled with labour-saving devices, and barista-made coffee, but we are also raising our kids in competitive times. Something has gone astray.  For many, parenting is a competitive sport and for some reason it is all about the parents. There is nothing wrong with competition. Every single one of us has experienced it and every single one of us has engaged in it. It is a fundamental truth of human nature that we are biased towards our own kids: this is the essence of our survival; we are designed to favour and nurture our own so that our genetic legacy goes forward.  

So far, so good. Where competition goes wrong is that a by-product of the natural phenomenon of loving our own best is that, for some people, this translates into thinking that their child is more marvellous and more advanced and infinitely more unique than the little one sitting next to them at music and movement.  In essence, other people’s children are bratty – ours are just strong-willed. Our society has compounded this belief that all of us are special and our achievements should be celebrated.

We also feel responsible for maximising a child’s full potential, ever since Sigmund Freud promoted the idea that parents are completely responsible for the way their children turn out – at least psychologically.  Another influential psychologist, Jean Piaget, introduced the theory that children go through various stages and that there are potentially good and bad outcomes associated with each stage. As you may have guessed, parents are the ones responsible for the good outcomes.

But who among us really knows what we should be doing? In any other job or activity we are used to having a variety of measures to determine performance.  With parenting there are no objective standards, no clear benchmarks and this makes us vulnerable to the implication that we, or our child, aren’t doing well enough.Competitive people tend to provoke three kinds of responses:  irritation, anxiety and inadequacy, or more usually a combination of all three. If you are struggling with unwanted competition, try some of these tips to make it easier.


Perspective is vital and easily lost when you are feeling vulnerable. Think about your closest loved ones and your oldest and dearest friends. Consider the handful of people in your life you know really well. Do you know who among you walked first? Who was the first to speak in complete sentences? Do you care that your best mate could read Green Eggs and Ham at age five? Keep this in mind next time you feel your perspective slipping.

Everyone is different

Variation in development is normal. A ten-month-old and an 18-month-old can both take their first steps around the same time. This doesn’t mean anything.  The early walker is not destined to be an All Black and the later walker is not doomed to the couch.

It isn’t about you, either. It’s hard not to take it personally when someone is elevating their child and sharing their achievements, but this is actually nothing to do with your child. There is only a competition if you are willing to compete. It is also completely flawed logic to conclude that if one child is doing well then another must be doing less well. Both can be entirely different and great. The key is to remember we are all vulnerable about our kids and all of us feel a responsibility to help our children do well. This is fine and normal but what we must always come back to is: what does our child need and want? If your four-year-old is doing one activity a week and is happy then it doesn’t matter that your neighbour’s is doing six.   

The ‘mmmm’ never fails

If you are ever at a loss for words, just use the ‘mmmm’. And you will never get into trouble if you keep it sounding friendly. For example, when asked ‘How is Joe doing?’, followed in the next breath by, ‘Sophie is nearly fluent in several obscure Swiss German dialects’ then ‘Mmmm’ is an excellent answer.  

Keep it in house

It is our job as parents to think that our children are the best thing ever, but it is not in our or anyone else’s interests to share this information. If you want to keep your friends, celebrate in private. Gloat away about the stellar achievements of your toddler among your inner circle but resist, resist, resist the temptation to share more widely than this.  

We differ in terms of our levels of competitiveness.  My family is hugely competitive. Card games are not for the faint-hearted. Family dinners have been interrupted for press-up competitions. Once, at a rock climbing birthday party for my youngest, the party guests got a bit sick of the climbing so my husband,  our older children and I thought we would have a go.  Stopwatches came out and it was days before I could lift my arms without pain. When everyone wants to compete, competition is fun. It teaches lessons about being a gracious loser and a humble winner. Outside of a supportive environment this behaviour can be seen as psychotic. Keep a lid on it.

Zip it

Resist the urge to go one up yourself. It is petty and won’t make you feel any better, in fact it will just escalate the game. It is also demeaning to you and your kids. We are all more than the sum of our achievements.

Control what you can

You can’t change others’ behaviour. The only thing you can change is your own thoughts and actions. You can change how you respond to competition and how much it impacts you. Once again, you don’t have to compete. Competition comes to a grinding halt if you respond sincerely with a comment about how well the other person’s child is doing and leave it at that.  

Find some empathy

The mum at coffee group who is constantly trying to outdo everyone else may be a royal pain, but it is also possible she feels insecure about the job she is doing or has very little support and encouragement at  home.  She may have come from a competitive job and is simply translating this into her parenting. She may be unhappy in her relationship or wearing undies that are too tight. No one knows what is really going on for anyone else, so be as compassionate as you can.  

Be a good role model

Show your children that you are good at some things and less good at others and as long as you give things a go the outcome doesn’t matter. Especially with successful children, focusing on their achievements is a huge trap. Let them know you love them for who they are, not what they do and that it is okay to fail and to do things just for fun. 

Speak up

If competitive parenting is impacting a friendship, you can try seeing the bigger picture and staying silent, but if the friendship is starting to falter it is best to act.  Many good friendships have faltered because one person doesn’t say something, so the other person has no chance to change. 

Sometimes people don’t realise how their behaviour is coming across – parents can be so excited about how well their child is doing they don’t consider how it may make you feel. Achievements are exciting as a parent, especially “firsts”.  

Take an honest look at yourself. Have you ever excitedly told someone the latest thing your little one could do without first thinking about their feelings?  I know I have. It is only sheer luck that I was saved from becoming insufferably, priggishly, awfully boastful by the fact that my children never did any of the things they were supposed to do on time. I was too sleep-deprived to be sensitive. If mine had been easygoing babies I would have had no friends.  

Value your friendships

A close friend and I had our babies two weeks apart.  Her daughter slept like a dream and spent the day looking like a pretty china doll. My son slept erratically, cried a lot and I had a busy toddler helping me. For six months I was up and down all night and spent my days whirling like a strung out yoyo. My friend is a kind person and definitely not competitive. I am less kind and very competitive. In order to keep our friendship strong we agreed we wouldn’t talk about how much our kids slept, cried etc. What kept us friends was relating to each other as more than just mums. You don’t want to be that parent who lives through his or her children. Be interesting in your own right.


We need to let go of our scarcity mentality. It is obviously not possible for each of our children to lead the United Nations, but surely there is room for everyone’s baby to be marvellous and everyone’s toddler to be outstanding. We need to celebrate our own children and those of other people and let each other know we are doing a good job. We all want our children to do well and we all need support. These things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

Let’s go out there and be kind to each other!

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