Emotional Health · Family & Friends · Health

The Losing Side of Competitive Parenting

“If you have an extraordinary child you are willing to do anything for her.”

So says a parent in a novel now topping the bestseller lists, You Will Know Me. Written by Megan Abbott, this book is a thriller about a teenage gymnast, Devon Knox, and her ambitious parents, Katie and Eric. These parents, and their cohort at the gym where Devon trains, provide a warning tale of the problems that can arise from competitive parenting. This kind of behavior occurs when we are narcissistically invested in our children as emblems of our own self-worth. We all do this to a certain extent, but when it gets out of control the biggest losers are the kids.

Here, Abbott describes a world especially prone to extremes. Competitive athletes must be dedicated and focused in a very adult way if they are to succeed. Recognizing their child’s unusual abilities — she had to learn to walk again at the age of 3 after she lost two toes in a freak accident — the Knoxes become more and more single-minded as she moves up the gymnastics ladder, reaching higher levels of excellence. Soon the word “Olympics” is being whispered, then shouted, as Devon becomes the hope, and envy, of her entire community.

The plot and the pace get going when the boyfriend of the coach’s niece, the handsome young Ryan, is killed in a hit-and-run accident as he is walking along a dark road. What was he doing there? Who would want to kill such a universally beloved person? And most important, what does this have to do with Devon and her parents, if anything?

For one thing, it disrupts the clockwork schedule of the gym practices because the coach, Teddy, must help defend his distraught niece, and she becomes the chief suspect in the accident. The “Tiger Moms” that make up his clientele are distinctly upset about anything that slows down the girls’ routines, especially so close to an upcoming competition. Some are so callously unconcerned about the coach’s family that they seem almost unbelievable.

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Though the story may be far-fetched, with many elements added with dramatic license, the tone is not that far off from reality. Parents have become increasingly more intense about everything related to their children, often losing their sense of perspective on the bigger picture. Sometimes their concern for them overwhelms any sense of compassion they might have for others. When my daughter was in nursery school, I had a conversation with the mother of one of her friends that left me speechless. The mother told me she was upset because her babysitter had been hit by a car and injured. “That’s terrible!” I said, and she replied, “I know. She’ll be out at least two weeks. It’s so disruptive for Isabel!”

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  • Andrea August 4, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you Cecilia for this excellent article on parenting. We can never have enough insight into this subject. And now that our kids are becoming parents its a whole new game! I would love to see more information and articles and even book recommendations on that topic.