03/21/2008 01:08 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Parenting As Competitive Sport

If April is the cruelest month, March has to be the strangest. At least, this March: What a strange few weeks it's been. Silda Spitzer stands by Eliot; Gilligan's Mary Ann is a stoner.

Then, last night, as I was watching my daughter thumb through a new catalog from a local toy store, I noticed small icons at the bottom of each product description. It turns out that they are "ExpressCodes," ratings that indicate "how the product can assist in reaching your child's developmental milestones."

Yeah, seriously: A basketball, for example, is called out for propelling a kid toward the milestone of Eye/Hand Coordination ("hands manipulating objects, things fitting together, coordination") and Gross Motor ("physical play, running, throwing, jumping"). A set of plastic dinosaurs promote Eye/Hand along with Fine Motor ("grasping, manipulating, writing, drawing"), Socialization ("cooperative play, making friends, sharing"), and Creative Expression ("imaginative play, artistic ability").

Are codes in a toy catalog a big deal? No, in the grand scheme of life, they're barely a blip. But they feed into a whole competitive parenting groundswell of doing the right things for kids at the right time, else they be marginalized for life. March is, after all, also the time when parents typically white-knuckle getting their kids into the right school -- from preschool on up. I'm not sure whether marketers need to lighten up on parents, or parents need to lighten up on themselves. But either way, someone has to lighten up on childhood.

As Caroline flipped through the pages last night, both of us couldn't help but smirk a little at the idea of a kite or a jump rope being anything other than... well, toys.

Don't get me wrong. I like the ethics of the local store franchise owner, who explained to my daughter a few months ago that he took Webkinz charms off his store's shelves because their maker couldn't ascertain whether they were lead-free. And I like the toys he sells.

But the idea of categorizing toys into buckets for "developmental milestones" irks me. On the surface, it's the sort of inane thing that ridiculously assigns the "Make Up Star Station" three icons (Fine Motor, Visual Perception, Eye/Hand Coordination) or spawns other silly products ("ATTENTION, COMPETITIVE PARENTS," riffs Dave Barry, "No point in letting your teenager waste several minutes a day showering; turn bathroom time into study time today!")

But at its core, it's a notion that every childhood joy is an opportunity to groom children for success. Toys that were once just kites and balls and dress-up games are now freighted with a whole nuther imperative. It's a lot of pressure on parents to provide the "right" toy. Ultimately, it places a lot of pressure on kids, too.

When my oldest son was four months old, I remember feeling bested by another mother I met waiting at the pediatrician's office with her one-year-old. She cooed in a perfunctory manner at Evan's doe eyes peering up at her from beneath his blanket, then said, "Well, he sure is tiny! My son has been in the 90th percentile for height and weight since he was that age!")

Later, when I relayed this story to a friend who'd already had four kids of her own, she laughed in a tone that sounded like a bark.

"Ha!" she said. "So now you know: Parenting is a competitive sport."

Ann Handley also writes at her personal blog, A n n a r c h y.