My husband and I, with our toddler and infant, attended a party at the suburban home of friends. It was a casual, daytime affair, but one that had clearly taken some effort and cost to put together. Local and long-distance friends and relatives had come to celebrate the special occasion.
Food was served buffet style, and guests took their plates and found a place to perch. Some sat in the den, others stood chatting at the kitchen counter, others hung out on the backyard deck. The many kids were invited to play in the designated playroom upstairs, or in the den, which was overflowing with toys and people. My family sat in the formal living room — my husband and I (baby in sling) in wing chairs, toddler on the floor at our feet. We were in an awkward spot near the hallway, with a view toward the stairs, the den and the kitchen.
Another mom and dad were perched on the formal sofa, with their kids — the oldest appeared to be about 4 or 5 — on the floor. Each had a plate on the coffee table. We smiled and nodded at each other, but it was too noisy and we were too far apart to start a conversation. Other people occupied the remaining furniture, and most of the floor.
A woman stepped in from the hallway, saw me, and greeted me enthusiastically. We’d met at a few of our hosts’ previous events over the years, and I’d come to think of her as “Competitive Mom.” She was friendly, but a bit loud, and just frenetic enough to set my nerves on edge. I knew what was coming, and sat back and watched. She perched on the arm of the sofa (a reasonable option, there was nowhere else to sit), and started talking. To anyone who came into range.
Though I can’t remember her exact words, I recall the gist and tone precisely. Competitive Mom was saying, “Have you tried the Suzuki method? Colby* has really improved since we switched him over. He’s already on level three and he’s only 5-1/2. I totally recommend it.”
She asked the room at large if our kids had had the same invaluable experience with toddler full-immersion foreign language instruction, infant swim class, and kindergarten competitive chess, as had hers. So worth the money. They are doing so great. It’s a great head start and their self-esteem is way up.
Many parents nodded in agreement — some adding their own suggestions for enrichment programs she might try, as well as where and when to buy the latest must-have gear and clothing.
The formal-sofa parents sat, wide-eyed, staring mostly at their plates and occasionally at each other. They smiled politely, but looked a bit like Amish people at Best Buy. Their kids, oblivious to the grown-up talk, sat and ate, talking quietly with each other and politely wiping their faces with their napkins. Eventually, the oldest asked for more cake. The mom shook her head, “No, you’ve had enough.” He looked disappointed, but did not ask again.
Competitive Mom had got around to mentioning the accomplishment of which she was most proud. Not only did Colby read at a 4th grade level, but little sister Ava, just 2, was already reading at a 2nd grade level — even better than poor Colby, who’d only started reading at almost 3 and thus had had a lot of catching up to do to get where he was today.
From our chairs, we could see where he was. And so could everyone else in the room, every 5 minutes or so. Despite the crowd, the precariously balanced plates, and the elderly guests hobbling about, Colby and Ava were running down the stairs, around the kitchen island, down the hall, out the back door, in the front door, through the living room, then back up the stairs, over and over — shrieking all the way. And we knew they were her kids, because at each pass they screamed “Hi, Mom!” and she screamed, “Hi, guys!” right back.
This went on for quite some time. Eventually something happened — an injury sustained during a particularly fast lap or a tantrum over cake, I can’t remember exactly — and Competitive Mom took her kids and left.
Formal-sofa family visibly relaxed and appeared to exhale for the first time in an hour. With the room quiet, I only had to raise my voice a little for her to hear me. I leaned toward her and smiled, saying, “Let me guess… your kids can’t read?” She smiled back and said, “Nope.”
* Not their real names.
(originally posted Feb. 18, 2010)