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An Open Letter to Competitive Parents, From a Parent Who Hates the Rat Race

Look, I am no better than anyone else who is caught playing this game. I am one of the most competitive people I know. But I now realize that parenting isn't a round robin tournament. Or at least it shouldn't be.
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Dear fellow parents,

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

I'll admit it, I'm scared. What if by quitting the competitive parent game my kids are doomed to a life a mediocrity?

On the other hand, what if by withdrawing from the rat race my girls have a chance to grow into the people they were meant to be?

Look, I am no better than anyone else who is caught playing this game. I am one of the most competitive people I know. But I now realize that parenting isn't a round robin tournament. Or at least it shouldn't be.

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?

These days, as best as I can tell, it begins at conception.

We don't even realize that we were drafted into the game. But from the start, we wade into the competitive parenting pool. The "best odds" diet in pregnancy to the debate over how a woman gives birth. Then it moves into the breast fed versus bottle fed camps that is quickly followed by the stay at home versus working mom debate.

In preschool years it is the subtle "Oh, she's not yet sitting up?" to the obvious "I just cannot believe that Pierre is reading in English and French!" It is the judgment of the parent whose kid has a meltdown at the mall candy store (Can you believe that there are parents who let their kids eat sugar?), uses a binky past age 2 (That child will never speak clearly, so there goes being head of Moot Court at Yale Law!), or plays with plastic toys (Why don't you just inject radiation directly into her?).

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

In the elementary school years there are the competitions over reading and math groups, GATE programs and All-Star sports teams for kids who are still young enough to believe in the Tooth Fairy. And, while parenting 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... clearly something you did in her early development caused her to be -- GASP -- average.

And the second lap is complete...

Heaven forbid if a middle school student isn't on track for either high academic, athletic or artistic achievement (of course, all three are most preferable). Don't let your child go through a pudgy phase or have a few pimples -- fix 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 to assume as many leadership roles as possible. If your teenager's schedule does not resemble that of a Fortune 500 CEO's, she is doomed when it comes to college admissions.

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.) After all, your child's SAT score is a direct measure of your efficacy as a parent. Keep focused toward the finish line of the competitive parenting challenge: admission to a highly competitive college.

For those of you not yet to this level of the race, a highly competitive college is not necessarily the one that is most academically rigorous. Rather it is 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.

Finally, sprinting to the 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 ten schools, you are a highly successful parent. Schools 11-20 will rank you as an average parent. While 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 isn't one where your child will thrive academically and socially, one that you can afford to pay for or even one where she will have the programs she wants. No, 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.

So I concede. I am removing myself and by proxy my four children from the race. And by doing so, I am choosing to honor them for being exactly who they are: human beings in and of their own right, not proof of my worthiness.

I also apologize to those of you whom I made feel less than, whose parenting I judged or who simply believe that no matter what they do as a parent 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.

Finally, to those taking glee in one fewer parent in the race, you're welcome. I am comforted by what one of the great philosophers, Lily Tomlin, said, "The problem with the rat race is, even if you win, you're still a rat."