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How Social Media is Making Parenting More Competitive Than Ever

It’s hard for me to shake that nagging fear that I’m being lapped in the race that is infant rearing

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Original story published in the Toronto Star on May 6, 2016. Read it online here

It happens almost daily: I log in to Facebook. I scroll through my feed. And I’m bombarded with photographs of babies from my mom group eating solids or sitting unassisted. Then I look at my own 6-month-old daughter lying like a blob and I feel a twang of panic. Shouldn’t she be reaching for toys and popping teeth, too? What’s wrong with her?

The answer is nothing. Babies develop at their own pace and the vast majority will roll, sit and crawl when they’re ready. But it’s still hard for me to shake that nagging fear that I’m being lapped in the race that is infant rearing. Such is the reality of raising children in the social media world, where every accomplishment is broadcast to — and judged by — all our followers.

But I’ve noticed some parents are so eager to get a jump-start on firsts that they end up feeding solid food before babies’ digestive systems are ready, or plopping them in high chairs before they can hold their heads up.

“I’ve definitely seen some parents strive to hit milestones that potentially put their kids in harm’s way just for the sake of hitting milestones,” said Alicia Robson, a Toronto mom of two toddlers. “Things like early use of Jolly Jumpers, all the way up to forward-facing their toddlers in car seats much earlier than recommended.”

Robson said she uses her Facebook mom group to crowd source information about her own son’s development, but finds some parents seem to comment on her queries just to tout their own kids’ early accomplishments.

Dr. Daniel Flanders is a Toronto pediatrician and director of Kindercare pediatrics. Aside from the dangers of improper car seat use, he’s worried less about the physiology of pushing kids to hit milestones early, and more about the psychology of it.

“I would ask myself is it healthy for a toddler and a young child constantly feeling like their achievements aren’t early enough or good enough,” he said. “When it comes to toilet training for example, parents will push their children too early, and that could set up dysfunctional relationship problems if the child isn’t ready.”

As for this sense of parental competition, Flanders said it’s common.

“But I do think that social media has created this frenzy of anxiety that make the stakes seem a bit higher,” he added.

“There is constant feedback if your child isn’t quote-unquote normal, that could stress you out significantly.”

Tachiwa Murray, a Toronto mom with a toddler and a newborn, said she first noticed a trend of parental judgment when her son was about 8 months old and hadn’t started crawling.

“I started to see other moms’ babies start to crawl and I’d look at Hudson and he’d he just be sitting tight,” she said. “I would come back from mom and baby yoga, or another mommy group, and feel so embarrassed and sad that he wasn’t crawling.”

“As stupid as it sounds, I just wanted him — and me really to fit in. It was like high school all over again.”

Brydie Fee, a mom to two little boys, said she felt “shamed” at her son’s daycare by another parent whose 10-month-old had graduated from bottle to sippy cup before her own son.

“Like it’s some sort of a personal accomplishment,” Fee said, adding she also found potty training to be hugely competitive. She knew one mother, for example, who would hold her infant daughter over the toilet, then tell people she was potty trained.

“People truly see a kid’s milestone accomplishment as a sign of intelligence (or lack thereof), and it quickly becomes a judgment on parents,” Fee said. “(There’s) so much pressure on things that really don’t make much of a difference in the long run.”

So what’s the deal? When did we start pitting our babies against each other in arbitrary competitions to see who does what first? When did parenting become so competitive?

According to Toronto parenting coach Alyson Schafer, the answer is: always. Parents are naturally inclined to see their children — and their children’s successes — as a reflection of themselves.

“We (have) this idea that we need to give our kids a foot up,” Schafer said. “Think of the attributes we value in the culture like being strong, being fast, being first. Accomplishments are very easy to measure and they give us a metric and tell us if we are doing better or worse than others.”

But Schafer said early doesn’t necessarily equate to better, and adds that a lot of advances will quickly level out.

Instead of creating a sense that “there is a ruler in a child’s life,” Schafer said parents need to, well, relax. And that extends to what we react to online.

“We have to keep in mind that social media tends to be the projection of the best parts of our lives,” Schafer said. “And it’s selective.”

“Just let (kids) be who and what they are. They are all going to evolve into whatever their unique potential is going to be and we have to stand back and watch our children unfold and be Zen about that.”

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