Raising Mary: Comparatively Speaking


I’d just met a woman at the park, and here she was, gesturing with a pinched expression toward my 14-month-old daughter, who was sucking her thumb. It’s been her one comfort habit since she was eight weeks old. No blanket, no stuffed animal, just her trusty digit.

“Oh, I’m not concerned about it,” I shot back, stung by the judgment in the woman’s tone. (For the record, Mary’s still sucking her thumb at two years, and I’m still not worried about it. So there.) I’m instinctively sensitive about the topic of comparing children. While I adore my immediate and extended family, there is a multi-generational history of sometimes negatively comparing one’s own children – to their faces – to the other children in the family in a misguided attempt to motivate. The, ‘why can’t you be more like so-and-so?”’ technique. It’s a damaging method I’ve vowed not to use with Mary, the child I’m carrying now and any future offspring.

But, except for the woman in the park, I’ve discovered that comparing children doesn’t have to be negative, and indeed the urge to compare our children with others their age is irresistible and probably normal. For one thing, it’s a way (other than consulting books and professionals) to measure our kids’ progress and to figure out whether they are developing normally. All mothers do it. We think about whether our child is doing okay, whether they’re going to make it in this world amidst their peers. And it starts right from birth.

In every library group, swimming class and play group and on every play date I’ve attended with Mary, mothers chat about what their children are doing and learning and ask each other when their children did that and learned that. In short? Compare, compare, compare. Most of the time, it’s in a light-hearted, ‘Aren’t kids fun?’ kind of vein. Sometimes, it’s downright reassuring.

I have a group of friends who are also new mothers raising young children and, many times, I’ve e-mailed them when I’m having a frustrating time to compare my parenting experience, and my child, with theirs. It reassures me and reminds me that other mothers have gone through the same thing, and that this stage, too, shall pass. It’s not about shoe-horning my child into a mould or wanting her to be just like the others.

I’ve finally discovered that if I can check my judgmental attitude, and keep in mind there is a wide range of normal in most areas of child development, comparing can be helpful. I admit that I have forgotten this a few times and remember feeling nervous at playgroup when Mary was about 16 months old. A few kids her exact age were gamely going through tunnels and climbing – two things Mary didn’t seem interested in. But in the area of speech, she spoke many more words than a lot of other kids her age, so it evened out. I realize that children excel in some areas and not in others.

Now I compare for fun and for reassurance, and ignore the mothers who claim their children were potty-trained at 14 months. My kid’s okay! PC

Published in Spring 2008

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