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posted: 7/31/2011 1:00 AM

Mom needs elixir to calm her competitive spirit

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Q. How do I get over my innate competitive urge when it comes to my sons? The elder will start school next year and while I assume rationally that he can't be the amazing exceptional one in everything like I embarrassingly frequently like to believe, I do actually feel my mood change when I get a blast of reality that other peers may be better than him at something. Silly and shameful, but it seems to happen and I don't want to be that kind of person.

Both are awesomely lovely kids so far; I just wonder if you have any managing-expectations tips to suffocate this silliness of mine.

A. The vaccine against mine-is-better-than-yours expectations is one you already possess: the knowledge that someone is always better at something. Right now it might be mostly abstract, but as other kids routinely do various things better than your kid (because even if your kid does excel, it's likely to be in only one or two areas), that knowledge will be real and right in your face.

In fact, the number of "amazing exceptional" people is, by definition, minuscule -- so not only are the odds in favor of your child being average, it's also likely that the kids who beat your sons at one thing or another will be average, too, in the grand scheme of things.

Feeling better yet?

If it helps, here's a memo to tack onto your mental bulletin board:

Number of players per Major League Baseball team: 25.

Number of U.S. Rhodes Scholars selected annually: 32.

Number of babies born in the United States every year: more than 4 million.

But there's good news in that memo, if you cock your head just right when you read it. Namely, you can consider the pressure off. You, personally, cannot and will not launch your boys to the upper echelons of achievement.

The kids who stand out among the annual 4 million do so not because their parents expertly fanned every little ember of promise, from genome to graduation. Instead, at work is a series of factors akin to planetary alignment. Among them are attentive (but not smothering) parents, but also among those factors are failure, frustration, devastating setbacks, limitations, and getting smoked at "Red light! Green light!" in preschool.

So when you botch something parentally/care about something ridiculously/resent your sons' peers irrationally, feel free to comfort yourself with the possibility that this might be the very botching that accidentally deflects your boys onto their paths to glory.

Also feel free to laugh at your competitive impulses, because they're normal (it's acting on them that gets you in trouble). Being the parent of a young child is to live with daunting questions: Is he going to be OK? Happy? Able to keep up? Accepted by peers? Since these questions won't be answered fully for years -- decades, possibly -- and since your serenity is riding on those answers, it's only natural to seize upon little clues. In the whole sandbox, he's the sturdiest on his feet, yea! Oh no, the other kids are making sand pies, but only my kid is eating them! Etc.

Seeing the normalcy and humor will help you keep these impulses safely inside, where they can't hurt your children. And they do hurt; parentally imposed expectations of high performance breed anxiety and self-doubt, and often divert kids from paths they'd choose if they weren't consumed by pleasing you.

The way to help your kids -- and society -- isn't to raise scholars or stars, but instead to raise them to like (not adore) themselves. The best way to get there is to encourage your boys to work hard, and to keep an eye out for their own interests and strengths. The best way to quash competitive urges in you is to watch your boys develop and gain fulfillment from their hard work. Which is how healthy stars are born anyway. Win win win.

Teaching them to measure themselves by the comparative strengths of their peers, on the other hand, is a remarkably effective way to knock them off the path toward making peace with themselves. So when you see Little Trey develop some skill before your Little Troy does, remind yourself how little that milestone means by adulthood. ("We've decided to give you an 8 percent raise given your mastery of the pincer grasp.")

What will matter: how hard your boys work; how resourceful they are; how responsible, grateful, fair; how attuned they are to their own and to others' needs. These are the life skills you want to encourage and praise in your kids, whether they're in school or sports or the arts or knocking around the backyard, from when they're very young to the point where they've grown out of reach. Conveniently for your current affliction, the value in each of these skills is both inherent and impossible to quantify. You just know it when you see it, and when you see it, you'll realize -- success is completely their own.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011 The Washington Post$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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