Baby Development: The Competition Trap

Breathe a sigh of relief: It doesn't matter whose baby walks and talks first!

Introduction

It's perfectly natural for parents to compare children, especially in the first few years, when kids may be the same chronological age but develop skills as vastly different rates. All new parents are generally very anxious about their child's development, says Meri Wallace, a family therapist and director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development in Brooklyn. Comparing can help you figure out if your child is developing normally and hitting milestones on time, and it reassures you that you're doing a good job.

Problems can arise though, when helpful comparison turns into hurtful competition. Find out about the most common comparison traps and how to avoid them.

    Common Comparison Traps

    Baby's milestones

    Everyone knows a parent who has bragged that her child was an early roller or crawler. Intellectually, we all know that the natural milestones of crawling, walking, and talking -- and of course, gains in weight and height -- are something that no parent can control. But that doesn't stop you from feeling insecure when someone's comparisons imply that your baby comes up short. Or when you look at other babies to see whether they're smarter (or cuter) than yours. We are a competitive society and there are comparative lists for everything, says Maureen O'Brien, a child development expert and author of Watch Me Grow, I'm One-Two-Three (Quill). But we have to remember that kids aren't machines -- you can't turn them on and off or compare features.

    There are plenty of reasons why some kids jump ahead or lag behind. Some develop more quickly intellectually while other excel at physical growth. Also, children who have older siblings will often do things earlier because they learn by example. On the other hand, some younger siblings are slow to hit milestones because of the "helpers" who do things for them. Keep in mind that early achievement of developmental milestones doesn't mean that your baby is smarter or will do better in the future.

      Parenting choices

      It's harder not to let comparisons that involve parenting get to us. If you work and send your kids to daycare, you may worry that they don't have it as good as children with a stay-at-home mom. These comparisons can make you feel doubly insecure; most new moms already have internal doubts about their choices.

      For reassurance, consult your healthcare professionals. Use their advice as your benchmark, not the "expert" guidance of your mother-in-law or someone you met in the park. They can reassure you that, say, formula is fine if you've decided to stop breastfeeding. However, there are certain decisions, such as whether to stay at home or go back to work, that you just have to make your own peace with.

      When your confidence dips, remind yourself that what works for one child doesn't necessarily work for another. When it comes down to it, you know your child better than anyone else, says O'Brien. Even experts only write about kids in general terms.

        Becoming Comparison-Free

        What if someone has pointed out that you're a competitor? Once you're aware of it, make a concentrated effort to stop. The old axiom that being aware of the problem is half the battle applies. You can also enlist the help of loved ones; make a pact with friends and family that if your conversation ever becomes competitive, change the subject. Or ask your spouse to give you a signal, such as pulling his ear, when you're at a gathering and get caught up in competing.

        Give yourself a break, too. People who say they never compete are fibbing. Remember, it's a very human thing.

        But what happens if you're not the one competing? What if you're the target of comparative comments about your child? If they're from a relative stranger, like a sandbox mom or a once-a-week playgroup dad, try to deflect them. Remind the person that kids develop different skills at different times. And, as in any tense situation, a little humor can ease the strain and point out the other person's bad behavior without embarrassment. If the guilty party is a close friend or relative, your task is a bit more difficult. Try being honest and point out that her comments annoy you. Your friend might not even realize she's being competitive, and a frank discussion should be enough to put an end to it. Remember, such behavior usually stems from insecurity, so try a quiet one-on-one conversation rather than a public session.

        If all else fails, you can always bring out the big stick -- your pediatrician. When confronted with a comment about your child's supposed shortcoming, simply say, "Our pediatrician thinks she's doing just fine."

        Luckily, the phenomenon seems to be a first-time parenting thing. Many people outgrow the need to compare once they realize that each child's development follows a unique pattern -- often through the birth of a second child or simply by exposure to more babies.

        No matter what you do, your child is going to grow at her own pace. So try not to worry and instead enjoy the progress your baby is making. No other child in the world is doing it in quite the same way!

        All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.