I was a parent for close to 13 years before I remember experiencing the passive aggression of competitive parenting. I had my first child very young and had a handful of first-time mom friends who were also young. We had conflicts, of course, but I can’t remember us ever pitting our similarly aged children against each other. My daughter occasionally experienced a spontaneous math test or interrogation of what exactly we did all day when she was homeschooled, but never from our friends.
Once I had my second child and was introduced to the Down syndrome community, I knew that social relationships with other parents would be really different, and they are. We lost some old friends; we got closer to some old friends. We made lots of new friends. We now maintain friendships with folks whose politics and personal beliefs are far different from ours and those of our long time friends. We have ongoing friendships with people way outside our class demographics as well. These types of friendships often don’t last without some kind of a bond, and ours is that our families each have a member with Down syndrome. We may not be family to each other, but in a way, our kids are family to each other, and they have a bond we won’t ever know. It’s really great, and it’s really hard sometimes too!
I worry about navigating potentially awkward social situations with people more educated or monied than me or making an offhand remark that sparks a political discussion we are never going to agree on. I worry about having people over to my house and if it will be nice enough or if they’ll look down on us. I did not ever worry that anyone would try to put my kid up against theirs in a developmental competition, however, until those microaggressions began in my child’s first year. What really took me off guard, was that aside from one very strange cafe owner, that competition came from other parents in the Down syndrome community.
It doesn’t just happen to me, of course, I see it in online groups and among other parents. A parent of a child with T21 says something that their child is working on, and other parents respond simply by saying at what age their child picked up that skill– as if such a thing is relevant anyway, with no recognition or support for the success of the other child. Other times parents chime in with judgmental and even fear mongering advice about when to get glasses or what therapy is absolutely essential in ensuring a child’s success in such a way as to show they know more, do more, and their child is in better hands.
Here are some examples of casual competitive parenting within T21 playgroups:
- A 17 month old with T21 is army crawling at a playdate. The mother of a different toddler with T21 whose child began walking at 15 months asks “How old is he?” with a slightly shocked tone in her voice, and follows up with pointed questions about his physical therapist and a story about how her child began walking and running because of all the specialized therapy she provided.
- When two similarly aged children with Down syndrome are playing together and one parent demonstrates a skill their child has learned and asks, “Is your child doing this yet?”
- A T21 parent uses social media to celebrate a new skill their child learned, while another T21 parent makes remarks exclusively about their own child’s accomplishments, perhaps even directly comparing, without so much as acknowledging the accomplishment of the child being celebrated in the post.
- A parent seeks advice from another parent of a similarly aged child, but with the intention of using the encounter to highlight or list their child’s skill set or compare in order to “catch up” or demonstrate superior skills.
It doesn’t just happen with motor skills or communication milestones, either. There can be a one-upmanship when it comes to types of therapies, amount of therapies, extra lessons or classes, and even whether or not a parent is successful in finding an inclusive placement for their child in school. I have even seen parents self-righteously proclaiming their children as “high-functioning” to other parents. (Side note: functioning labels are really harmful to all disabled people, please don’t ever use them!)
Of course, this type of behavior exists in all areas of parenting. Even empty-nesters compare the careers of their children or grandchild counts amongst one another. Around the time I had my second child, my first child enrolled in a high-performing school populated with a large number of wealthy students whose family culture includes countless lessons, expectations of perfection in every area, and the resources to pursue that excellence. There is an unacknowledged competition amongst students and parents there too. Countless articles and blog posts demonstrate that this is a much broader cultural problem.
There are a number of specific things wrong with competitive parenting as it occurs in circles where disabled children are concerned. First and foremost, it is a microaggression against a disabled child. Children with Down syndrome are an oppressed minority group, and those claiming to be their allies should never use their energy to degrade them, regardless of how friendly and casual the conversation is made out to be. However insignificant it may seem to that parent at that moment, it is an act of violence against the child. Moreover, it’s a microaggression against their own child. When a parent pits their kid against another, it is done out of insecurity. Can you imagine being the kid whose parent always wants them to be on top? That’s an impossible and exhausting pressure, not to mention the pain of knowing your parent is insecure in your abilities.
Secondly, it’s a microaggression against a parent who is constantly advocating for their child in an ableist world. As if parents of children with Down syndrome don’t experience enough anxieties with the pity of parents to nondisabled children, the exclusion of their child in many settings, and a constant worry that they aren’t doing things the right way or providing enough supports. It is particularly hurtful to experience this treatment from a community that is supposed to offer refuge from that.
Lastly, it perpetuates the very ableist culture that rejects and excludes our children with T21. Modern western culture is achievement-oriented, competitive, and ranks children’s worth according to their abilities. We should be challenging this practice in every setting, rather than recreating it on a small scale in our own communities.
I am so lucky to get to watch dozens of babies, toddlers, and young children with Down syndrome grow up in community with my child. It is well worth jumping over the social hurdles of coming from extremely different backgrounds and perspectives to get to know these kiddos and their families (and even extended families). Some of them develop skills and hit milestones on the early side, and some on the late side. Some have ongoing medical concerns and some don’t. All of them are incredible people who bring me joy constantly.
I would encourage parents of children with Down syndrome to work to build these types of relationships and to work extra hard not to fall into the pitfalls of modern, individualist, achievement-based parenting norms. Celebrate your child with T21 and their accomplishments! Celebrate your friend’s child with T21 and their accomplishments! Those accomplishments have nothing to do with each other except that celebrating them lifts up folks with Down syndrome while comparing those accomplishments drags all folks with T21 down. In a broader culture that does not value or acknowledge the lives and accomplishments of people with Down syndrome we can and should be celebrating constantly– whether that life or accomplishment belongs to our own child or someone in their T21 family. Your heart is big enough to love all the children in your child’s T21 circle and find joy in what they do, I promise.