Parental One-Upmanship: Which Childhood Stage Is 'Worst'?

Portrait of Four Young Mothers with Their Babies
Portrait of Four Young Mothers with Their Babies

Parental one-upmanship is as old as procreation itself. I imagine even when we lived in caves mothers would grunt boastfully about how much better their little one could daub paint on walls or gnaw a charred bone for supper. It seems to be an in-built instinct to ensure that we advertise far and wide how superior our children are.

When my own boys were babies every coffee morning seemed to revolve around bragging about how fast our respective offspring had reached developmental milestones. "Well of course little Jessica is already crawling," my friend would coo as my own child sat inert, waving his arms fruitlessly for the toy Jessica had just swiped and crawled off with.

But over time I began to notice an interesting twist on this parental showing off. Rather that telling me how great their kids were, parents of older children were much more likely to fix me with a beady eye and regale me with gory stories of the horrors that lay ahead.

Like some Cassandra-style soothsayers they would coo over my sweet little baby and then gloomily reveal just what a world of pain lay ahead. "Just you wait till he starts walking/talking/school/having girlfriends," they would bemoan. As my toddler son snuggled up to me, a friend with teenagers would wistfully sigh about how her son was embarrassed to be seen with her now, let alone cuddle her.

I will never forget one particularly searing experience of this cruel crowing. As I blipped my shopping through the till at the supermarket, my baby twins fast asleep in their seats on the trolley, the cashier gave me a baleful look and spat: "I just hope you don't expect them to look after you when you're old," before furiously ringing up my receipt.

I am sure this revealed more about her own family set up than anything else, but it was a particularly miserable version of this all too common phenomenon.


Anyone who is ahead of you in the parenting game seems to be tripping over themselves to tell you all the horrors that lie ahead.


At the moment my eldest is 11 and we are just starting to see the bubbling under of some particularly volcanic hormones. When I quail a little in front of parents with proper teenagers, rather than pat me on the back and reassure me that so far they have resisted the urge to throw their kids out of the house, they are rushing to tell me how awful it will be. With horror stories of swearing, monosyllabic communication and bad attitude problems.

It's no different with my six-year-old twins. While any mother of multiples knows that the first year or so is a bit like hand-to-hand combat, as they grow up you begin to feel as if you are over the worst of it. You breathe a sigh of relief as where once having two at a time was a burden, now it's a built in playdate. But beware being too smug around the mother of older multiples.

Recently I was chatting with some fellow multiple mums and while those with toddling twins complained about their unruly behaviour, the mums with older children instantly stepped in to say that we parents of little twins didn't know we were born. If you think keeping track of two toddlers is hard, just you wait until you have to deal with a double dose of teenage angst, they proclaimed.

I am not sure whether this urge is well meant, to prepare you for the rocky road ahead, or if it really is a twisted version of the one-upmanship that dogs parenting.

It's as if while your parenting peers are eager to tell you just where your child is falling behind, your elders in the parenting game are equally keen to tell you that you've never had it better.

This all leaves me with an overwhelming desire to step off the carousel of child comparison that we all seem to be painfully bumping up and down on. Just as I longed to shout that I simply didn't care if so-and-so's baby had accelerated through all those early achievements at breakneck speed, now I long to shout – just because your teenager is an evil pain, doesn't mean mine will be, and even if he is, you warning me about it really isn't any help.

Have you experienced this?