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Nobody likes a show-off

Performance parenting -- actively parenting in front of others, has little to do with childrearing and everything to do with insecurity, writes Suzanne Harrington


The TV show Motherland is savagely funny and shows how parents sometimes perform for each other

The TV show Motherland is savagely funny and shows how parents sometimes perform for each other

The TV show Motherland is savagely funny and shows how parents sometimes perform for each other

Picture the scene. A posh supermarket where a middle-class hipster is interacting with his small child at top volume, asking if little Byron would prefer a mango or a papaya as a treat. Words like 'fair-trade' and 'choose' reverberate through the produce aisle. Nearby, at the till, a woman is having a loud conversation with her two children about a forthcoming skiing trip, under the guise of not forgetting to buy sunscreen.

AIBU, as they say on Mumsnet - am I being unreasonable - or is having to witness performance parenting a legitimate reason to grind your teeth to splinters? After a quick scan of the parenting site, I discover it is entirely legitimate. Nobody likes parents who parent too publicly.

When Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh, Helen Linehan and Graham Linehan wrote the savagely funny school-gate sitcom Motherland, all the small children of the characters were irrelevant. Unlike the family sitcom Outnumbered, the Motherland children are not part of the story; the story is about how the parents perform for each other, and the wider world.

Performance parenting is everywhere. It's the parent loudly reading their toddler a story not in the children's bit of the library, but in a coffee shop full of adults, complete with gesticulations, character voices, sound effects. It's the ostentatiously elaborate school-play costume which took hours to make, rather than the traditional last-minute cornflake box bodge job. It's the perfectly executed school project that no six-year-old could have produced unassisted, or the faultless gold star homework painstakingly completed by Mummy. Or Daddy. Just not little Juniper. It's the projection of perfection, the opposite of actual messy, chaotic, knackering parenting.

In the olden days, performance parenting was something you did when your children were older, and making their way in the world. Help, help, my son the heart surgeon is drowning. Boasting about starry exam results, or your child doing particle physics at MIT. About your daughter the barrister, your son the athlete. This, in moderation, is entirely normal - we all love it when our kids do well, after all the years of slog from us. Some light bragging feels like a reward.

Performance parenting is different from this, and also different from traditional competitive parenting in that it involves not vying with other parents for your kid to be the best, but actively parenting in front of others; making a show of it, like the exotic fruit guy in the supermarket. We all do it, to some degree. Although some more ostentatiously than others.

From dressing your newborn in a Ramones t-shirt and leopardskin baby trousers (guilty!) to giving them names that reflect your own sense of identity (resulting in primary schools being full of Spikes, Tigers, Aces and Wolfs - and that's just the girls), we are keen to establish that despite now being parents, we are still cool. We are not like our own parents.

"Putting your baby in a Ramones t-shirt is very different from loudly talking to your child about your forthcoming fancy holiday," says Dr Anne Kehoe, senior clinical psychologist and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland. "The former is asserting your identity, the latter is something else entirely, and not about parenting.

"The most everyday kind of performance parenting would be at the supermarket till - perhaps you feel the person behind you in the queue is judging your food purchases, and so you say something to your child about how all the sweets are for their birthday next week.

"We tend to readjust our behaviour based on our perception of the judgement of others. Most parents are very sensitive to criticism, from teachers, grandparents, even glances from random strangers. We have a need for approval, to be evaluated as good parents."

This insecurity-motivated performance parenting is the same as beseeching your children not to swear in front of grandparents; it is the pretend-to-be-normal school of parenting, and a different kind of performance from the guy shouting about mangos and papayas. The woman talking about the skiing trip, however, was not so much parenting as using her kids as props to status-display.

This all gets exaggerated online. Performance parenting on social media - sharenting - means that anyone with a smart phone can project a carefully curated version of themselves and their children to an unknown online audience, as pioneered by Katie Price and her kids in magazines and reality TV before the Kardashians took over.

"It reaches levels we are not used to, when it's for an invisible audience on Instagram or other social media," says Dr Kehoe. "Some parents can become very invested in presentation."

This happened to Charlotte Philby, the founder of an online parenting magazine (called Motherland!), who told an interviewer in 2017 how she was taking time off from her 10,000 Instagram followers because her three small children were becoming overtly aware of their own self-image, even as they played amongst themselves. It had become about performance, not just for her, but for them: "Ultimately I began to wonder how many times I'd missed out on a special moment with my kids because I was too busy trying to capture it for social media."

Such performative perfectionism can cause anxiety in children. A family photo with a kid covered in ice cream captures the reality of parenting small children; children tend not to notice or care about being covered in ice cream unless they have been made aware of the fact by a camera-waving parent. "We say things like, 'don't ruin the photo," says Dr Kehoe. Why? What makes us do this?

Perfectionism and the pressure to present as perfect comes via an avalanche of often conflicting parenting advice from family members, peers, educators, doctors and the state, gurus and experts, random bloggers. Am I doing this right? Does it look right? What does everyone think? Are they judging me

Add to this the omnipresence of social media - where edited, filtered individuals present as happy, shiny, gorgeous, living their best lives - and it's easy to crumble into self-doubt. Then there's the (often imagined) scrutiny of other parents who appear to be gliding along effortlessly, and probably think you're a bit rubbish. And look, your kid is covered in ice cream / addicted to Fortnite / being expelled from school.

The opposite of performance parenting is authentic parenting. What used to be primarily about asserting control (sit down, be quiet, eat up, finish your homework) is now a more integrated process of (their) nurturing, empowering, and encouraging, spliced with (your) exhaustion, repetition and drudgery.

By acknowledging to others that despite all the parenting manuals, you still haven't a clue what you're doing, but are bumbling along, motivated by love and optimism, you are choosing real over fake. You'll see how other parents are just as bamboozled as you, whether it's a toddler or a teen, and if they're not, they're probably fibbing - or performing.

Which makes the importance of laughing aloud at the absurdity of your adult life being taken over and governed by small despots - whom you love to death - difficult to underestimate. Performance parenting is either po-faced and narcissistic, or running on fear and feelings of inadequacy; neither are much use to you or your kids. (And that's before you ever factor in the issue of their right to privacy; according to research by UK telecommunications agency Ofcom, while 56pc of parents do not post images of their children online, 44pc do. That's a lot of sharenting).

So if, at the school gates in real life Motherland - that is, Parentland - you encounter what Sharon Horgan terms "mean mums", or alpha parents, cliquey parents, perfectionist parents, performance parents, or any other kind of parent that makes you feel less-than, don't worry. For every scarily competent mum or dad, there's an ordinary one who is just as exhausted as you are, and who'd love a cup of tea and a good moan. "Parenting is a tough gig," says Dr Kehoe. Let's at least be honest about it, and leave performing to the professionals.

Irish Independent