I avoid reading parenting blogs, and I avoid talking to parents on the internet about my child. This isn’t because I don’t have questions about my kid that other, more experienced, parents might be able to answer; even after having taught child development at the high school and college level, I still feel like I’m flying blind when it comes to parenting. The reason I keep my child development questions to myself is the risk of running afoul of toxic parenting communities.
I don’t know if it’s this way all over the world, but parenting seems to go hand in hand with a bizarre form of narcissism, where the achievements of an infant are somehow supposed to reflect on the parent. For a matter of perspective, we are still talking about “achievements” like not pooping in your pants, because children are born pretty useless so the bar is set very low. But somehow, despite everyone knowing on some level how fundamentally fucked up it is, parents brag to each other when their child does something earlier than other children. Beating the statistical mean is somehow a great accomplishment, not for the child (who actually did the thing), but for the parent.
What The Hell Did I Just Stumble Into?
My first encounter with this achievement-by-proxy came when my daughter was only a few months old. She had unusually well-developed neck strength almost from birth, perhaps due to being a week late and having a giant head, and at some point I realized I could stand her up against a low obstacle (like the arm of a couch or the sides of a crib) and she would remain upright without help. This isn’t “standing unassisted,” and it’s not a matter of coordination: she wasn’t shifting her weight back and forth between her legs, she was just rigidly propped up against something.
I’d never heard of this in my studies of child development, so I naively asked a parent group if they had encountered it themselves. Among the comments I received were demands for photographic and video evidence and not-so-thinly veiled accusations that I was lying about the whole thing. Sure, there were some parents who helpfully pointed out reflexes and child development milestones I was familiar with, but it was the knee-jerk competitive comments that stuck with me.
I mean, why on earth would I lie about my baby being able to do something? What could I possibly have to gain from this? How incredibly fragile would my construction of my role as parent or as genetic antecedent need to be for this to be something I would be concerned with. Child development for almost every milestone is a WIDE span, sometimes up to a year; as long as my child is within that healthy range, does it matter that she did something a few weeks earlier or later than another kid? Is it a damn race?
What is Asynchronous Development?
Child development is also, by its nature, asynchronous, meaning that certain areas may be more advanced or lag behind. Despite my child’s early ability to lean on things (and again, I’m reminded of how low the bar is that “leaning on things” is an achievement at all), she wasn’t the first in her daycare class to crawl or walk. That’s how asynchronous development works: different skills develop at different speeds.
Which brings me to my actual point. I study older kids with advanced asynchronous development. They learn in certain academic (and non-academic) disciplines at a faster speed than their age-peers. Statistically, they are usually more than one standard deviation above the mean in one or more areas. This poses special educational needs for them, in the same way that you’d want to have academic support for a child who was performing a standard deviation below his or her age-peers in a subject at school. What frustrates me more than anything else is that this asynchronous development, which poses an actual problem to be solved, is treated as a feather in the cap for narcissistic parents.
If a child is advanced in reading, that doesn’t mean they are better than other kids (and, by extension, that you are a better parent or have better genetics). It’s not something to brag about. It’s a genuine concern that requires academic interventions by a trained educator or else it has lasting repercussions on their future academic success. Asking questions about how to best solve this problem is not “humble-bragging” and should not be treated as such.
Why Am I Afraid To Ask Questions About My Kid?
So a year after my first encounter with competitive parenting, I once again have a question about my child’s development, and more specifically how best to support my child’s unique needs. I don’t want to measure my kid’s verbal, intellectual or physical development against another kid, I just want to know how to help her.
My child wants to play collaboratively with other kids. Unfortunately, other kids her age haven’t reached that stage yet and older kids don’t want to play with a “baby.” Every child development book I’ve read says kids my daughter’s age should be egotistical and self-absorbed, capable of only solo and limited parallel play, but my daughter gets her kicks by sharing toys and trading things. She gets her feelings hurt when other kids shun or ignore her, which, according to most research, they are supposed to do at that age. How do I help?
And see, thanks to the pervasive attitude of competitive parenting, there’s someone reading this right now thinking that I am bragging about how much more emotionally mature my child is for wanting to do advanced social activities.
The Insidious Implications
If I’m hesitant to talk about areas that my child is advanced in for fear of running afoul of the competitive parenting community, could it also be that parents who have genuine questions about areas where their child is behind the curve or struggling will potentially be too embarrassed to bring them up? Have we so firmly connected childhood achievement with parental status that there are questions going unanswered about learning disabilities, developmental delays, mental illness, or any number of other relatively common things found in children, simply because a parent is worried that having a “flawed” child will reflect poorly on them?
Keeping My Questions (And Expertise) To Myself
That’s why I don’t talk about my child as part of my research in asynchronous development (despite the precedent for experimenting on your own kids established by child psychologists like Jean Piaget). It’s why I don’t want to talk to other parents about my kid or theirs. It’s why I’m really hesitant to use real-world examples at all when presenting anything about child development in a class. It’s why I don’t blog about scaffolding for developmentally advanced behaviors in young children.
And really, isn’t that a shame? Isn’t it fundamentally messed up that I can’t solicit advice from other parents without it seeming like I’m comparing my kid to theirs like race horses? I wish parent communities could take a page from my daughter’s book and share and collaborate without judgment.