Mompetition: Hitting Moms Where It Hurts

Cheryl Lock
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The New Way Moms Are Finding To CompeteAs a mom, you might recognize this behavior:

“Tommy was potty-trained at 13 months!”
“Amanda’s ballet teacher said she’s the best one in the class—and she’s going en pointe soon.”
“Sarah knew the capitals of all the states in kindergarten!”

It’s time for … competitive parenting?

The trend is so widespread that Urban Dictionary actually has a term for it: mompetition. They define it as “the one-up rivalry that moms play, making their child seem better, smarter and/or more advanced than yours. May involve two or more moms and any number of children, even full-grown.”

In its most innocent form, it’s been known to elicit eye rolls. In the worst of cases, you find moms willing to drop loads of cash on lessons, clothing and toys simply to measure up to their mom-peting peers. We think that when you spend money on your child, it should be for his own sake … not because Cathy from the PTA gave you a challenging glare.

What’s Your Mompetition Story?

Is there one mom you shy away from because of her mompetitive streak? Have you ever felt like you might be afflicted with mompetition?
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Because in the end, mompetition is about a lot more than money. On the part of the mompetitor, it’s often fueled by insecurity and the need to prove oneself. On the part of the mompetitee, it can beget feelings of guilt and doubt. (Am I a bad mom for sending my kid to private school? Should I have bought the more expensive pair of jeans?) Read on for why moms engage in it, how to know if you’re a mompetitor yourself and four ways to stop a mompetitor in her “Alice has only ever gotten straight A’s” tracks.

Why Parenting Is a Competitive Sport

There are a couple of reasons moms involve themselves in mompetition, says Stacy Kaiser, USA Today advice columnist and author of “How to Be a Grown-Up.” The first and most obvious is that the mom has so much pride and ownership over her child that she has to let the world know how awesome she is.

In other cases, the competition may come from a mother’s own insecurities. “It could be that her whole sense of self is wrapped up in her child, and she doesn’t feel good about the things going on in her own life,” says Kaiser. “But the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ as they say, is the worst. This is where people are apt to get into the most trouble, and even spend money to make sure their child is the best at everything.”

The Financial Perils of Mompetition

Even the most financially equipped women can get tripped up when it comes to keeping their kids in the clothing, lessons and sports that will help them save face. This pressure to compete can “override even the smartest mom’s best thinking,” says Kaiser. “So that makes her spend too much money, buy too many clothes, sign her kid up for too many classes.”

But engaging in financial mompetition not only hurts your bottom line but also harms your child. “Think about the example you’re setting,” Kaiser says. “It’s important to try your hardest, of course, but you’re teaching bad money management skills when your actions say that materialistic things like name-brand clothing really matter.” Indulging in petty competition also teaches your child that the opinions of others matter too much.

How Competing Takes an Emotional Toll

While mompetition can be bad for your wallet, it can also lead to guilt and anxiety if you can’t or don’t want to buy your child the latest and greatest of everything. According to Kaiser, in extreme cases, it may make some moms “question who they married, or might even make them question their own choice of job. The stress of inadequacy runs very deep, and can cover a lot of layers.” Forced comparisons with other people can dredge up old baggage, like forcing you to compare your or your child’s intellectual ability, athleticism or popularity to other people’s. This can even force you to confront your own upbringing and the opportunities you had, or didn’t have, as a kid.

To avoid those feelings, focus on what’s important in your own life. Ask yourself about your personal goals and your goals as a family. Do you envy your friend’s huge home because you truly aim for a larger home, or because you feel peer pressure? If it’s the former, think about what you need to do to achieve your goal, whether that’s cutting back on spending or trying to get a raise so you can eventually move to a larger home. But if you’re being swayed by peer pressure, focus on the goals that do make you tick; instead of a big house, it may be more important that you have the means to go on a family vacation every year.

At the end of the day, try to block out others and stick to your guns. If someone really won’t let up, this could even mean reassessing the friendship. “If somebody is really pushing your buttons and making you feel inadequate, you might want to pull away from them,” Kaiser said. “Maybe that’s not a friend you want to have.”

The Right Way to Respond

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a competitive comment from a mom, you know how frustrating it can be. Here’s how to sidestep an awkward situation next time:

Deflect, Don’t Engage. Simply put, don’t allow a mompetitor to drag you into her competitive mom-iverse. There are two ways to do this, says Kaiser. The first is to just give the offender her due glory. Say “Wow, it’s great that you can afford to put your child in one-on-one violin lessons; you must be so proud.” It takes two people for a competition, and reacting this way will keep the situation from ballooning into something more.

The other option is to simply change the subject. The next time a mom says, “Chris knew the entire alphabet at age two,” try responding, “Interesting. That reminds me, I found this new coffee shop I just love!”

Put Mom in the Spotlight. Try letting the offending mom know you’re interested in things going on in her life in addition to those of her kids. Try something like, “Our kids are great, but let’s talk about us. Have you seen any good movies lately?”

Set the Record Straight. If the offender is a good friend of yours, tell her the truth. Have a heart-to-heart, suggests Kaiser. Say, “I feel like we are competing about our kids. I love your child. You love mine. So let’s try not to do that anymore.” The trick is to not attack the other person. In her mind, she’s just being a great mom, telling you how amazing her child is. Most of the time, especially if she’s a good friend, she doesn’t mean any harm by it.

Speaking of responses, don’t assume your child is oblivious to the mompetition going on around her. If you believe she could be picking up on the negative emotions, or if she comes right out and asks you, tell the truth. Try saying, “We don’t have the kind of money that the Gonzales family does, but we spend a lot of time together and that’s what’s important.” (Read this for more on how to answer awkward money questions from your kids.)

How to Know If You’re a Mompetitor

We know that you like to talk about your child because you’re proud, not because you want to make others feel bad (we hope!). But you probably don’t want to be the cause of other people’s discomfort, and recognizing you’re an offender is half the battle. Ask yourself a few questions to determine if you suffer from mompetitionitis:

  • Does the focus of conversations with other moms tend to shift to your child?
  • Do you subconsciously find ways to bring the conversation back to your child’s accomplishments?
  • Do you subconsciously reference money you’ve spent on your kid?
  • Go through a conversation with another mom and try to avoid mentioning your child, only answering questions asked of you specifically. Was it hard?
  • Are other moms hesitant to ask about your kid, or do they seem a little impatient if you answer at length?
  • If you asked five acquaintances (not just close friends) to name the things your child is best at, would they be able to?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be a mompetitor yourself. To combat that competitive urge, try making a few easy changes. First, really listen when other people talk about their children, and avoid bragging about your own. If someone shares her kid’s accomplishment, and your child has done something similar, there’s no need to interrupt. Instead, hear her out.

Be aware of how you angle your updates, as well. Organically mentioning that you’re excited about the awesome deals you scored at a post-holiday sale is very different than saying, “I ended up buying Kate an iPad she can use at school because she really wanted one. Have you bought anything nice for Susan lately?”

Do you know people who engage in mompetition? Do you ever engage in it yourself?

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