My Major Parenting Struggle

I love my daughter but there is a certain aspect of her beautifully determined and bright personality that utterly torments me as her parent: her fierce competitive spirit.

“Being competitive is a great quality!” Some say. That’s true of most any personality trait, but the problem is me. A drive to compete with others is a mindset that clashes with so much of my own perspective that I’m constantly stumbling when determining how best to parent my daughter as an individual. How do you parent a child who has tendencies that oppose so mightily with your own? How do you support, and guide that child without attempting to change her?

I am a “gardener” parent. Meaning, I don’t impose my life goals on my children. I don’t try to change my children to suit my dreams for them. I don’t insist they participate in certain extracurriculars or feign specific interests. I don’t insist they fit a certain mold. Instead, I revel in their unique goals, skills, struggles, and hobbies while endeavoring to guide them towards a positive, healthy, responsible, kind, resilient life that leads to good decisions and a relatively clear conscience (I say, “relatively” because they’re human and we all make mistakes and make regrettable choices, but hopefully we learn from these pitfalls.) However, I struggle being a “gardener” when it comes to competition.

I am not competitive with others, though I am fiercely competitive with myself. My daughter is competitive with everyone including herself. Whereas I rarely perceive competition between myself and others, and if there is a competition I likely bow out, she views life as a competition and endeavors to win. Always. This means that to her everyone is a possible competitor for some unspoken victory (or defeat) and every situation has a competitive component, of which I am entirely unaware and incapable of truly grasping.

I can’t fathom finding joy in winning so that another may suffer a loss, especially since that individual would — in all likelihood — cherish the win more than I ever would. Conversely, my daughter craves the thrill of winning and laments even the smallest of losses. She comes to me for solace after losing a real or perceived competition and I struggle — I truly struggle — to empathize. I feel guilty for not knowing how to muster deep comfort for her in her competition-based upset. But I can’t. All I can think is, “STOP ALREADY WITH THE COMPETITION!” And then, in hearing my inner voice, I feel guilty.

Competition can certainly bring about good, but it can foster the opposite too. Kind, loving people can become selfish and brutish, trampling those they strive to overtake. Secure, happy people become self-conscious or judgmental towards others in some perceived ongoing worldwide competition. However competition can also drive people to do great things and accomplish astonishing goals. It can inspire and fuel. It can lead to discoveries and growth, in addition to turmoil and callousness. As with most anything, it is simultaneously positive and negative. A true gray area.

And so I can’t in good conscience dismantle or parent away my daughter’s competitive nature, just as I wouldn’t strive to erase my middle son’s sparkly flair for the creative or my youngest son’s fearless athleticism. I can try to help my daughter navigate the world healthfully given her competitive worldview. I can try to give her coping techniques for inevitable losses and graciousness for wins. I can encourage competition with self to balance competition with others and encourage a thoughtful awareness of others to stave off self-centeredness. I can build her self-esteem and self-worth so that the outcomes of her perpetual perceived competitions do not dictate her self-worth. But I cannot make her into what and who she is not. Nor should I.

So I’ll keep struggling and trying and failing and trying again. Because I’m a human parenting humans.

Wish me luck!

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Doing Something Right

There are long days that ebb into heavy nights when I fall into bed feeling like a failure, when I crumble under the weight of guilt, when I am pelted by my own perceived inadequacies, when waves of worry drown my reason. Those are the nights that embed themselves into my memory, that mount themselves as sharp obstacles along my mental pathways, peppering the story I tell myself of my life, my parenting journey, and my self with doubt. Those are the nights I war against in my efforts towards positive thinking. But last night was not one of those nights.

Yesterday The Hubs played as a substitute on a teammate’s secondary softball team. So, after a morning playdate, the kids and I headed to the softball field.

Watching adult co-ed slow-pitch softball isn’t necessarily the most enthralling afternoon activity, so I was prepared with packed lunch and a bag of bubbles, balls, and sidewalk chalk to keep my 7-, 5-, and 3-year-olds entertained. Who knew how valuable those items would be?

When we arrived, there were three young children scampering about the metal bleachers. The 6-year-old boy introduced himself, as well as his 5- and 4-year-old sisters. In no time, I was happily herding the playful crew. All six kids interacted beautifully.

As they drew and blew bubbles and played catch, the previously unfamiliar caregiver of the newfound friends had an unexpectedly candid conversation with me. She relayed the challenges these children — who were temporarily in her custody due to their parents’ unfortunate life choices — had faced. She noted each child’s strengths and struggles. Then, she stopped. She marveled at how well her wards played with my children. Her three were previously accustomed to only interacting with one another as they — in their parents’ care — hopped from one dodgy hotel room to the next and, as a result, often struggled when attempting to socialize with other children.

For two hours the six played. They ended the unexpected playdate with warm hugs and wishes for more time together.

I drove home realizing how proud I was of my children. They welcomed those struggling kids into their hearts and games, navigating their limitations and strengths with ease. For two hours those children got to really play, to be kids, to be genuinely accepted without reservation.

Though I actively strive to help my children be kind, inclusive, genuine individuals, no amount of training or discussion can truly shape a person fully. There is a certain spark that must come from within to allow for such an open heart. It is either there or it is not. And yesterday I bore witness to that spark in each of my three children.

What honor, pride, and joy I felt seeing how beautiful my children are in their innermost selves. My heart bowed to the potential of their gorgeous gifts.

My children aren’t perfect. They tantrum and misbehave. They get rowdy and quarrelsome. They don’t always listen and some days I wonder if they have forgotten their names entirely. But still they are good in that inner truest sense beyond social mores and rule following, beyond the external that is so easily and often judged. They are good humans.

So often we parents tell ourselves all we have done wrong, all we have failed to do, all we should do and be. But rarely do we take note of all we do right, all we accomplish, all we are helping our children become. Rarely do we take note of who and what our children are in that innate, inner way.

Yesterday I did that. Yesterday I changed my inner narrative. Yesterday I realized that, though I am an innately flawed human parenting innately flawed humans, my three children are truly beautiful individuals. Yesterday I realized that I am somehow in some way doing something right.

3 Must-Read Books for a Sparkly Boy (or for caregivers seeking to teach children acceptance)

Whether you have a young boy in your life who is defying gender norms, you are striving to teach your child(ren) acceptance, or you are building a diverse library for children of various backgrounds, these are our top three must-read books.

1) Sparkle Boy

This is our absolute favorite book of all time. My 7-, 5-, and 3-year-old children reach for it time and again. It is the closest depiction of our own family experience we have encountered. It teaches resilience and acceptance all in a multicultural setting. After countless reads, this book still brings tears to this mama’s eyes.

2) My Princess Boy

The last page is a tearjerker but in the best possible way. This simple, easily relatable, positive book shows the “why” behind acceptance. It humanizes what may be a foreign concept to some. Simply worded and kindly written, it is a great conversation starter.

3) Julian is a Mermaid

You’ll want to do a standing ovation for Julian’s Abuela after reading this beautifully illustrated, interpretational, whimsical book. This story delicately nods to numerous family-related topics with a clear message of loving acceptance.

If you’re just beginning the conversation of gender norms or are fostering an ongoing discussion regarding identity, these are a few other helpful reads.

1) Pink is for Boys this quick, inoffensive, easy read is perfect for preschool through early elementary ages. It addresses the idea that colors are not engendered. This book would serve well as an opener for discussions of acceptance (not soley in terms of gender identity or nonconformity, but in general) and would allow for future gender-related talks if desired.

2) Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity This simply written book makes a complex topic easily digestible. It is a great addition to a LGBTQA-friendly/acceptance-oriented library. This book would be ideal for a continuing conversation regarding varying identities and LGBTQA acceptance.

3) Love is Love If you’re already discussing various LGBTQA topics or are broaching a related conversation, this is a useful tool. Clearly written, humanizing, and positive in nature, this is a great addition to a liberal library.

With all of these reads, I suggest closing the book with a thoughtful sigh or pause then asking the listener’s thoughts on the story. Tuck away any inhibitions and welcome any questions with an open heart and welcoming ease. Tear down those walls and make gender, identity, and acceptance an ongoing discussion in your home. This is only a dreaded discussion if we — the adults– make it so.

What are some children’s books within this genre that you have enjoyed and would recommend?