The Rat Race: An Open Letter to Competitive Parents, from the Parent who Concedes


Dear fellow parents,

I am writing to you because I give up. Your child is better than mine. You win. I am throwing in the cards. I will no longer play the game of competitive parenting.

I’ll admit it. I am a little scared. What if by quitting the competitive parent game I am dooming my kids to a life a mediocrity?

On the other hand, what if by continuing to run the race I am giving my girls a chance to grow into the people they were meant to be?  If that means that they are not sufficiently impressive for me to experience the raised eyebrows of “wow, you must be a great parent” at the next cocktail party I attend, so be it.

I, like I suspect most people, became a parent because I wanted the privilege of being the guardian of and guide to another human being. I wanted the gift of unwrapping each stage of my daughters’ development, including those that made me wonder if I was raising people destined to steal my sanity. Parenting has been, by far, the greatest challenge I have ever undertaken. And it is the constant rising to that challenge that has made me a better employer, friend and person.

I also hoped that parenting would bring into my life and the lives of my children a caring and supportive network, a village if you will, where we could all be interdependent, supportive of one another when things go wrong and celebratory when successes big and small are achieved.

And, in time (and by time I mean over two decades of parenting), I discovered that village. What surprised me is the game that I was sucked into along the way, a game that I am choosing to withdraw from effective immediately: competitive parenting.

Look, I am no better than anyone else who is caught playing this game. I am one of the most competitive people I know (and that is saying a lot given that I exist in the world of sports). I like to win everything, but I now realize that parenting isn’t a round robin tournament. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Please understand, I don’t know that any of us entered into the realm of competitive parenting with the express purpose of turning what is supposed to be a relationship with another human being (parent and child) into a marker for our proof of worthiness as people. In fact, I am quite sure none of us did. I would find it surprising that anyone would undertake the responsibility of raising a child with the intention of using her as a measuring stick of one’s performance in life.

But somehow parental pride has crossed a dangerous line for so many of us morphing into a competition between parents over whose child is most talented, brilliant and unique. So when did parenting become a competitive sport? How did we get from a point of parenting being a part we play in another human being’s life to it being a report card on our success and the value of our child to society?

As best as I can tell, it begins at conception.

We don’t even realize that we were drafted into the game when it is happening. It is all innocent enough. But from the start, we slowly wade into the competitive parenting pool. It starts with assuring that we consume the “best odds” diet in pregnancy and continues with the “natural” birth vs. a birth assisted by an epidural vs. a C-section. It moves into the breast fed vs. bottle fed camps which are quickly followed by the stay at home vs. working mom debate. Instead of looking at the options as matters of personal choice and being sympathetic that we are all trying to do the best we can, we pass judgement on one another for what are private and intimate decisions.

In baby and toddler class it is the subtle “oh, is she not yet sitting up?,” “Grace gave up her bottle at 10 months.” “She’s three and not potty trained?” and “I just cannot believe that Pierre is reading in English and French at four years old.” It is the judgement of the parent whose kid has a meltdown at the mall candy store (can you even believe that there are parents who let their kids eat sugar?), whose parent allow a binky past age two (that child will never speak clearly, so there goes being head of Moot Court when she is at Yale Law), who chooses to breast feed not at all (poor thing’s brain will not develop correctly, assuming she lives without the necessary antibodies that only breast milk supplies) or for five years (deep psychological issues, obviously) or who gives plastic toys to her child (why don’t you just inject radiation in her to bring the cancer on faster?).

We are rounding the first lap of the parenting rat race…

It’s sad to say but In our quest to be and stress over whether we are good parents, we boost our parental self-esteem by stepping on those of others. And having been on both ends of the vitriol, it does no one any good, with the possible exception of companies like Baby Einstein and Kumon. They get a handsome profit off our anxiety.

In the preschool and elementary school years there are the competitions over reading and math groups, GATE programs, All-Star sports teams for kids who are still young enough to believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, peer popularity and the list goes on. And, while parenting experts and educators assure us that development is on a continuum if you happen to be the parent of a child who is on the later end of the developmental curve…well then clearly something you did in her early development caused her to be, GASP, average.

Get moving on those extracurriculars while you are at it. Is your 10 year old child still dabbling in various activities? You’ve dropped the ball. Didn’t you know that it’s your job as a good parent is to help your child find her “thing?”

Yep, guilty as charged. Private gymnastics lessons for a 5 year-old, a math tutor for a first grader who wasn’t immediately grasping division (did we even learn division when we were in the first grade?) and private singing coaching for an 8 year old so she might land the lead role in her after school drama class. Don’t even get me started on the violin, flute, clarinet, oboe and piano lessons because why try one instrument when you can try five?

And the second lap is complete…

If by middle school, heaven forbid if a child isn’t on track for either high academic, athletic or artistic achievement, and, of course, all three are most preferable. Don’t you dare let your child go through a pudgy phase or have a few pimples—solve those normal developmental quirks immediately lest she lose social standing.

Moving into the final stretch…

By high school, the gloves come off as the competition to enter into Varsity athletics as a freshman, take as many AP courses that exist (who cares if your child doesn’t like music—there is an AP Music Theory course and by golly she is taking it as her “elective.”) and beginning the sprint toward the finish line of the competitive parenting challenge: admission into a highly competitive college.

For those of you not yet to this level of the game, a highly competitive college is not necessarily the one that is most academically rigorous. No, in this case “highly competitive college” means a school that rejects significantly more kids than it accepts. With the ultimate validation of your worthiness of a parent being your (I mean, your child’s) admission into an Ivy League school.

You think that you are saving for your child’s college fund? You better also be saving for your child’s trying-to-get-into-college fund, as well. You must take your child on extensive pre-college trips so she can decide on where to apply. (Not to mention that you must be prepared to spring the equivalent of a nice down payment on a car for SAT tutoring.)

Gone are the days when your mother would wake you up too early on a Saturday morning, handed you an apple, a piece of toast, a number two pencil and send you on your way to take the SAT. Now, a complete tactical plan must be created and executed including simulated practice exams before your child sits for that three and half hour test. And seriously? What was your mother thinking giving you a breakfast that lacked protein? Tantamount to child abuse. Also, it’s  your own social suicide. After all, your child’s SAT score is a direct measure of your efficacy as a parent.

And heading into the final straight away…

Mid-August of each year, the Guidebook to Ultimate Parenting Success is released: The U.S. News and World Report College Rankings. If your kid gets into one of the top 10 schools, you are a highly successful parent. Schools 11-20 will rank you as an average parent. Schools that people have “heard of” but are not in 1-20, a fair parent. And, if your child attends a college not in the top 20 AND the total stranger in line at Starbucks has never heard of, well, do I really need to say it?

Instead of college being a match to be made, it is a prize to be won. The “best” college for your child isn’t one where she will most thrive academically and socially, one that you can afford to pay for or even one where she will have the college experience she wants. Instead, the best college is the one that she is admitted to that admitted the fewest number of her peers. It is the one that provides the crown jewel of the parenting rat race: the most prestigious college static cling for your car.

Across the finish line you go… #winning

So I concede fellow parents. I am removing myself and by proxy my four children from the race. And by doing so, I am choosing to honor them, and all of the children in my community, for being exactly who they are: human beings in and of their own right, not proof of my worthiness. Their achievements are their achievements, not a sign of their value as people.

I also apologize to those of you whom I might have made feel less than, whose parenting I judged or who simply feel that no matter what they do as a parent that it is never enough. I am deeply sorry. By doing the best you can, you are enough. By being her essential self, your child is enough. Let’s join together to support ourselves, our kids and our community and recognize that we all love our kids fiercely but that parenting from a place of competition and anxiety does no one any good.

Finally, to those who take glee that there is one fewer parent in the race, you are welcome. After all, I am comforted by what one of the world’s great philosophers, Lily Tomlin, said, “The problem with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”