A Dad's View 6: Competitive parents
Children's birthday parties bring out competitive streaks, tears and tantrums... and that's just the dads as Tom Dunmore discovers
Sometimes, parenthood seems like a competition.
And much as I hate myself for it, I can't help wanting to win. I've always sneered at pushy parents intent on grooming their offspring for greatness, yet here I am trying to teach my two-year old to read, play guitar and compete in Just Dance on the PlayStation. (Fortunately, she's already nailed the latter, which is undoubtedly the most important skill for life in the 21st century.)
From birth weight to hair growth, first steps to potty training, I find myself measuring Ava's every milestone against the performance of her peers.
And I'm not even the worst offender: some of my hitherto chilled-out friends spend huge amounts of money on ballet classes and piano lessons for tots still in nappies.
Scarily, this competitiveness is rapidly escalating into an arms race of designer buggies and hi-tech toys. It reached the point that I seriously considered buying an iPad for Ava.
Fortunately, a sobering glance at my bank balance woke me up to the fact that an Etch A Sketch is a better gift for a toddler.
I thought I had turned a corner. I thought that I could become a Good Parent, nurturing my child's self-confidence, so she can avoid being crushed by a competitive nature.
Then birthday party season begins. It was easy when the babies turned one – all you needed was a pile of wrapping paper for them to chew on. But now, thanks to their new-found pester power, and parental one-upmanship, simple birthday parties have become exercises in extravagance.
Suddenly it's expected that a venue will be hired, food laid on, creepy entertainers booked, bar stocked and goodie bags stuffed. It's not enough for the birthday boy or girl to get a present: every partygoer needs one.
But the worst thing about parties is what they do to me – I regress. I find myself competing to win pass the parcel. 'I'm not going to stop the music until you've passed it on, Tom,' sighs my wife, as I sit among a circle of small, hopeful children waiting patiently for their turn.
So I reach over to pass the package to my daughter, but then withdraw it at the last moment. The music stops. I've won – hurrah! Ava screams and gets upset. 'Daddy's only joking,' I bleat, trying to quickly force the parcel into my young daughter's trembling hands.
The terrible truth is that birthday parties aren't celebrations – they're battlegrounds. Youngsters, wired on jelly and fizzy pop, lose any sense of self-preservation and begin flinging themselves off high objects, and older kids fight for control of the mini sausages, amassing an armoury of cocktail sticks with which to torture their siblings. Suddenly, Lord of the Flies is being re-enacted in my local day care centre.
This is human nature laid bare, and it worries me that I'm unable to simply stand on the sidelines and shout words of encouragement. I need to be neck-deep in jelly, proving my prowess in the egg and spoon race, or whispering a critique of the magician into the ear of an engrossed infant. If you're generous, you could say this makes me a 'hands-on dad', but really, it's just that I've never grown up – whether it's Twister or Call of Duty, I'm still wholeheartedly playing the game.
My only saving grace is that I'm bad at pretty much every game going and, thanks to my three older brothers, I learned the art of losing at an early age. I'm used to it.
Perhaps that's the glimmer of hope – if I can be the competitive dad who knows how to lose, maybe I can produce well-rounded offspring by mistake. Maybe.
But one thing's for sure – I'm sitting out the next game of pass the parcel.