Do you think competitive parents compensate for their insecurities?

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Anyone who has a child – and even plenty of people who don’t all know at least one super competitive parent.

We saw an article from the BBC and wanted to put a spin on it. Realistically, yes go-getting parents will push their children, likewise if a parent had a tough upbringing, this again can make them want their children to succeed where they did not get the opportunity.

Some parents flaunt their child’s cognitive and academic achievements. Others parade their offspring’s extracurricular activities, or ‘help them’ catch the eye of gatekeepers. At its best, competitive parenting leads to annoying parents on the side-lines at football matches; at its worst, competitive parenting can manifest in milestone-development races and lunchbox-shaming wars.

Yet despite its ubiquity, surprisingly few theories conclusively explain what drives competitive parenting. One theory is that it’s due to our need to bolster parental self-worth by ‘proving’ we’re ‘good enough’; a study found that insecurity led teen mothers to compete to provide material possessions to their children. Other commentators point to rampant consumerism or social-media environments amplifying and normalising this kind of behaviour.

But research offers a different take on the imperatives driving this phenomenon, for both mothers and fathers. Competitive parenting may in fact be a coping mechanism for individuals responding to feelings of vulnerability or inadequacy in another area of their lives. For instance, when we feel threatened in one arena, such as our professional roles, we seek to restore our standing via another arena, such as parenting.

This is known as a ‘status pivot’ – and it’s not necessarily bad. It’s beneficial to have different strands of your life that feed into perceptions of your own success, says experts. Yet understanding how status pivoting might feed into some of our behaviours, including competitive parenting, can potentially help us not fixate on any one area of life to derive our sense of self-worth.

Best parent ever!

“In today’s hyper-competitive and interconnected environment, upward comparisons are inescapable,” “Individuals often cope with status threat by pivot[ing] to domains in which they can signal achievements and feel superior.”

In one experiment examining parenting behaviour. The reserchers recruited 502 working parents and divided them into two groups: ‘threat condition’ and ‘no threat condition’. Both groups read material explaining they were planning to attend their high-school reunion and would hypothetically look through a news bulletin reporting where their former classmates were now. Then, in the ‘threat condition’ group, participants also read that the bulletin featured one of their former classmates as the most successful professional of the year.

The participants were then presented with two phone covers to imagine displaying at the reunion: ‘Best job ever! Congrats on your success!’ and ‘Best mom/dad ever! So lucky you’re my mom/dad!’. They were asked to rate how displaying each phone cover at the reunion would make them feel about their life. The threat group ranked the ‘best parent ever’ phone cover higher, preferring to highlight parenting achievements over professional success, in a context where one of their peers was already designated the most successful professional of the year. In other words, they felt that status pivoting using the ‘best parent ever’ phone cover would be a more effective method of restoring their status than trying to highlight their own professional success.

Notably, this ‘pivot’ is not limited to parenting. Looking to areas including morality, spirituality and unique non-vocational experiences like completing a race, engaging in extreme sports or visiting exotic travel destinations to signal status and enhance self-worth.

As part of the same paper examining the phenomenon of status pivoting, researchers analysed 113 bumper stickers on 97 cars parked around the golf club in Crans-Montana, one of Switzerland’s largest and most luxurious resort towns. They posited that while owners of luxury cars were able to signal status by driving a conspicuously expensive car, owners of more mainstream vehicles might want to find alternative ways to display status, potentially via bumper stickers.

Consistent with their hypothesis, analysis of the bumper stickers revealed 83.6% of owners of mainstream vehicles signalled status in alternative domains to wealth, compared to a mere 35% of luxury car owners. Bumper stickers on the mainstream vehicles related to extreme sports (such as paragliding or wrestling), athletic achievement through the iconic 26.2 sticker for marathon runners, vacation destinations, famous events like the FIFA World Cup and music festivals or spirituality and family-related stickers including children’s names and even ‘baby on board’ footstep stickers. Bumper stickers on the luxury cars mainly signalled success in wealth-related arenas, such as golf.

‘Important identity’

These findings reflect our tendency to replace one form of status with another, as we aspire towards achievements in multiple domains. Yet given people will have different options if they want to ‘status pivot’, why is parenting an area that people so often emphasise?

The answer lies in our beliefs regarding trade-offs across domains. We tend to believe status acquisition in one area has a trade-off in another, she explains, such as professional success coming at the cost of close family relations. With her co-authors, she found the trade-off most frequently emphasised “was that status and wealth are associated with sacrifices and trade-offs in family life, social life and personal relationships”. And when areas of our lives like wealth or our careers come under threat, we will likely pivot to the other areas that we’ve already identified as default costs, like two sides of the same coin.

With parenting specifically, this ‘pivot’ invites a more competitive and pronounced response because of how deeply we internalise our role. “Parenting is an identity that people have, want to display and get rewarded for,” “In fact, it might be the absolute most salient and important identity for many people.”

This chimes with findings from the research; the status pivoting to parenthood in the phone case study was a phenomenon observed across genders. Ultimately, it “depended on whether you view parenting as a central part of your identity and sense of self”, she says. The more centrally we identify with our role as parents, the more likely we are to resort to flaunting achievements in the parenthood domain as a means of status pivoting.

Ultimately, the pivot feeding into competitive parenting is not entirely negative. My Best Mom Ever mug in my classroom and Best Teacher Ever mug at home don’t necessarily mean I’m feeling under threat and inadequate at both – in fact, a little bit of status pivoting in our daily lives may even be healthy.

While bragging is never desirable or recommended, it’s beneficial to remind ourselves “there is more than one way to feel successful, and there are alternative ways to fulfil one’s need for status”. “It’s not a bad idea to remind yourself of your other roles and things you care about. Overall, status pivoting is a healthy psychological mechanism to have flexibility in how you define success.”

The key is to not define success too narrowly or fixate on one life domain, as that’s what creates an intensely competitive atmosphere. And just as the pivot to parenting may help ease competitive stress in other areas, pivoting from parenting to other domains is vital to retain a healthy relationship with our kids. After all, too much competitive parenting is linked to ruined friendships amongst the adults and increased stress among children. To prevent it spiralling, a more fluid view of ourselves is necessary.

“Our ability to move between life domains reflects the complex and multidimensional lives we lead and different hats we wear every day,”. “Thankfully, this complexity can protect us from the stress of upward comparisons and promote a healthier, less one-dimensional view of ourselves by helping us draw esteem from multiple domains and places.”

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