Let It Go, Let It Go. . .

Rethinking Social Comparisons

This past week, I took Little Man to his first music class through our park district. Lately, he’s been acting a bit shy when I take him to new places, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I know he likes music, though, and he does the cutest head-bobbing when he’s really getting into a song—think Jim Carey, Will Ferrell, and Chris Kattan in the original Roxbury Guys sketch on Saturday Night Live. How bad could it be?

After unzipping Little Man from his marshmallow blue bear, can’t-put-my-arms-down snow suit (hey, it is Chi-beria after all), he immediately flung himself into my arms and gave the room an apprehensive once-over. That shyness didn’t last. It couldn’t have been more than two minutes before he noticed the background music on the stereo, spotted the toddler-friendly instruments in the center of the room, and decided the teacher was a-OK. Those two minutes at the beginning of class were pretty much the last time I saw Little Man for the next forty-five minutes.

While the other kids in the class sat calmly with their caretakers (four girls and one other boy, ranging in age from 10 months to 3 years old), Little Man wandered. And he wandered. And he wandered some more. He wandered over to a row of cabinets and stuck his finger in the screw holes. He wandered up to the teacher and stood, staring, two inches from her face. He wandered over to the side of the room and tried to steal a bottle from someone else’s diaper bag. He wandered into the center of the circle, where everyone could see, and stuck his fingers down his throat which, surprise surprise, caused him to gag and puke up that morning’s banana onto the floor.

While I tried to inconspicuously clean up the mess, Little Man wandered over to another parent who was giving her child a drink and tried to steal the water bottle. Then he wandered to the other side of the room and stole someone’s shoes, which he carried for fifteen seconds and then cast aside in favor of some other treasure. He wandered over to the emergency exit door, found the door stopper (the kind attached to the door that you can put down with your foot), and proceeded to flip it up and down until he spotted some small leaves in the doorway threshold. If you are a parent or have spent any time around young children, you know exactly what Little Man did with those leaves—my sprinting and whisper-yelling “icky, icky, icky!” were no match for Little Man’s speed and efficiency in shoving them straight into his mouth. My smart watch mocked me: “you’re way ahead on your move goal for this time of day!” Little Man just grinned.

After five or six more trips to the forbidden leaf repository (I was much quicker and therefore more successful at preventing leaf consumption on our subsequent visits), an attempt to reach the teacher’s notes on the table, and Little Man’s successful theft of an entire bag of scarves, by some miracle we made it to the end of the class. The final song was a lullaby; the teacher turned out the lights, and all the children settled into their caregivers’ laps. All except mine, that is. Little Man didn’t want to sit in my lap. Instead, he took his place in the center of our little circle and shouted emphatically while waving around his pointer fingers and looking very serious (much like he was headlining at a political rally, speaking in some guttural foreign language about a critically important topic).

When we left the class, I felt exhausted and, honestly, a little defeated. For just a moment, I caught myself wondering why Little Man didn’t behave more like the other kids. Am I a bad mother? Have I been failing to teach him something important?

Luckily, a bit of introspection stopped me from getting too far down the rabbit hole with that line of thinking. With a little re-framing, Little Man’s behavior during class told me a completely different story.

All that wandering shows me that Little Man is both curious and confident. We were in a new place, so his curiosity drove him to explore. He conducts experiments because he wants to understand the world and how things work. What happens when I fold this thing (door stopper) up and down? What’s in that bag on the table (scarves), and how can I reach it? What happens when I stick my fingers down my throat? His confidence allowed him to explore that new environment independently, without needing me to hover or stay right by his side. For Little Man, knowing I was in the room with him was enough to let him walk up to new people and say hello in his own way (which does not include any concept of personal space whatsoever). My baby is, as we say in psychological jargon, securely attached.*

Despite that bit of cognitive alchemy, the temptation to compare Little Man to other kids remains. In fact, it sneaked up on me the very next day at baby gym class when the other parents were discussing the ages at which their children started walking, and again the day after that during storytime at our local library when a kid the same age as Little Man joined the group.

The siren call of social comparison can feel irresistible, especially when it comes to our children. For one thing, (whether consciously or unconsciously) many of us live vicariously through our kids—their successes are our successes, their achievements are our achievements. Their abilities are a testament to our skill as parents, and their triumphs are a boon to our self-esteem. We want to brag about our kids because it makes us feel good and gives us a sense of pride. We derive pleasure from knowing our child is better than someone else’s in some small way because, ultimately, self-esteem is a zero-sum game—securing our rightful place in the social hierarchy requires us to measure ourselves against others.

At the same time, we seek validation to counteract the pernicious, (mostly) suppressed anxiety we feel about being parents. We want to know we’re doing the right things to create the best possible life for our child, so we diligently force our babies to do “tummy time” even if they hate it. We ask other parents how old their kids were when they first rolled over, started crawling, started walking, and started talking. We buy infant scales and obsessively check our babies’ weights against the WHO growth charts to make sure they’re on track (I’m guilty of this one). And we spend hours on the internet researching every little quip, quirk, or perceived deviance from the norm to make sure it isn’t a sign of some severe abnormality.

(Confession: we never had formal tummy time with Little Man. When he was very young, it just made him angry, and when you’re a sleep-deprived new parent, the desire to intentionally inflict any situation upon your child that adds to the amount of time he spends crying is…uh…nonexistent. When he got a bit older and learned to roll over, any attempt at tummy time on my or Hubby’s part was met with—you guessed it—rolling. Silly parents; thwarted again! Little Man didn’t have any problems with physical development as a result of our caving to his tummy time resistance. He simply developed those muscles in other ways, which brings me to my next point…)

We place so much emphasis on and stress so much about these milestones that we perpetuate our own anxiety. I am certainly no exception. But, here’s the thing: Each child is on their own path and develops at their own rate. As long as you provide a safe environment for them to grow, THEY’LL GET THERE.** I promise. Little Man couldn’t have cared less about being mobile—he didn’t start crawling until he was 11 months old. He was too busy learning other things, and we didn’t try to force it. He also didn’t have any teeth until he was almost 10 months old, but that didn’t stop him from eating solids. Right now, his vocabulary comprises “mama,” “dada,” and “nooooooooooooooo.” There might be other kids his age who say more words, but that really doesn’t matter. He walks; he talks; he chews. He follows our robotic vacuum to his little heart’s content.

In five, ten, or twenty years, none of this stuff will matter. So, in the words of princess Elsa of Arendelle (and Idina Menzel): let it go.

*Explanations of Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theory of attachment can be found in this nontechnical article and this longer, scholarly piece, if you’re interested.

** I am not saying you should not be concerned if something really seems off. Get it checked out! And, by all means, if your pediatrician is concerned, be concerned!

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