Friday, September 14, 2007

My Kid Could Beat Up Your Kid

“You should see the way my little Ginger sits still,” I said to the man next to me.

“It’s so great that she’s learned to do that,” he said. “She’s been working on it for quite a long while now, right?”

“Just two weeks…by the way, did your Melinda ever figure out about not pooping in the kitchen?” I asked. “I know she has had some trouble with that.”

“No, not that much trouble. We got a shock collar and that took care of it in two seconds flat. She’d start to squat on the linoleum and BAM! one short sharp shock was all it took.”

As I sat with the Dog Park regulars and we bragged about how great our dogs are, I was suddenly struck by how similar dog owners are to parents. I could have sworn that I took part in the exact same conversation—snide insinuations and all—five years ago as Isabel frolicked on the Commons Playground with the other toddlers. The only difference between the dog owners and the parents was the shock collar. (Very few dog owners I know actually resort to the shock collar.)

Where does this parental urge to brag about our offspring come from? I feel it rather strongly, but, like many other things I feel, I am unable to get at the motive behind the feeling.

Is it an urge to make myself look better as a parent? Perhaps the process goes something like this: Isabel is my daughter and she is good at gymnastics, therefore I must be a great Dad. Or is it slightly less self-centered and more like advertising—a way to give my daughter a leg up in the world? Whatever the reason, I certainly feel the urge to brag strongly.

And I don’t seem to be the only one who wants the whole world to know about how special my child is. You see the “My child is an honor roll students at…” bumper stickers, the car window decals with uniform numbers advertising the fact that the son or daughter of the driver is on the high school baseball team, and the “Cornell Mom” sweatshirts all over the place.

I don’t remember this level of one-upmanship happening when I was child. My many siblings and I were all athletic and we made the honor roll more often than not, but my parents would never say that stuff out loud in public. We knew they were proud of our accomplishments because they told us, not because they told the world.

The thing is, now that bragging about our kids seems to have become the norm among the hyper-vigilant super moms and dads who make up my generation and who have turned “parenting” into a verb, I find myself forced to endure the ever-escalating parental claims of brilliance in more and more settings. Often these over-proud parents aren’t even listening to each other. It becomes clear after overhearing just a sentence or two that they are simply waiting for each other’s mouths to stop moving so they can launch into their own story illustrating how great their own kid is.

About two years ago I had a very sore throat as Isabel had a gymnastics class. It forced me to keep out of the conversation among the other parents. Instead, I was forced to just listen. It was then I realized that I was normally a willing and vocal participant in the brag-a-thons and I decided to quit cold turkey. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly the right decision for me. I know how I feel about my daughter and I know how distasteful I find boastfulness, whether merited or not. So the right policy for me is Abstinence. The only problem is, many of the parents at Isabel’s gymnastics and music lessons haven’t taken the same vow.

Withering looks and sounds of derision haven’t done a thing to slow the torrent coming from some of the other parents, so now I make sure to have a book, newspaper, laptop, or schoolwork with me at all times. They are my armor and my shield. Once in a while I peek out from behind my protection, under the oft-misguided assumption that there must be a kindred spirit in the room somewhere who is just as fed up as I am with the non-stop verbal competition between the parents.

Sometimes I recognize them by the book or newspaper they have brought, sometimes by the subtle roll of the eyes at a particularly obnoxious comment. Once in a while we will make eye contact and share an exasperated look. Even more rarely, we will sit near each other and talk about how tiresome the other parents can be with all their bragging. When I happen to meet one of these co-conspirators in the War on Bragging, we will quite often talk (quietly, of course) about how great we think we are for not joining in with the boastfest.

I hope you won’t misunderstand me. I believe it is important to be proud of our kids and to let them know we are proud of them. I am certainly NOT calling for any sort of move in the opposite direction. I do not believe, for example, that we should start adhering to our cars bumper stickers that say “My son was arrested for DUI!” or “My daughter got kicked off the softball team at Springfield High School!” Rather, we should maybe just realize that we are all proud of our own kids and life is not a competition about who can be prouder and louder.

I realize I probably sound like I am bragging about not bragging. And maybe I am. If so, I apologize. When the other parents start in with their toppers, I am still tempted to join right in. Only now, when I feel like telling everyone that Isabel’s head circumference was in the 83rd percentile when she was 18 months old or that she could do a cartwheel when she was three, I think about the moms in the parent observation room at gymnastics and I bite my tongue, HARD. Maybe I should think about investing in a shock collar for me, just to be sure.

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