Tell Me About It: A feeling that one's kids are superior

Question: 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 like I embarrassingly frequently like to believe, I actually feel my mood change when I get a blast of reality that other peers may be better at something. Silly and shameful, but it seems to happen, and I don't want to be that kind of person.

Answer: The vaccine against mine-is-better-than-yours expectations is one you already possess: the knowledge that someone is always better at something.

In fact, the number of "amazing exceptional" people is, by definition, minuscule - so not only are the odds in favor of your child's being average, it's also likely that the kids who beat your sons at one thing or another will be average, too.

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: more than 4 million.

But there's good news in that memo. Namely, you can consider the pressure off. You, personally, cannot 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 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 in trouble). Being the parent of a young child is to live with daunting questions: Is he going to be OK? Happy? Able to keep up? Since these questions won't be answered fully for years and since your serenity is riding on those answers, it's only natural to seize upon little clues.

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 with pleasing you.

The way to help your kids 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 them 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.

Teaching them to measure themselves by the comparative strengths of their peers is an effective way to knock them off the path toward making peace with themselves.

What will matter: how hard your boys work; how resourceful they are; how responsible, grateful, fair; how attuned they are to their own and others' needs. These are the life skills you want to encourage in them, whether they're in school or sports or the arts or playing in the yard, from when they're young to the point where they've grown out of reach.


E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax, or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.