He’s screaming again. It has been three hours of misery tonight watching him fuss and squirm and whine and scream. We’ve run the usual gamut of reactionary reconnaissance: Googling, entertaining, feeding, distracting, more Googling, message boarding, prodding. And he’s still screaming.

I feel the frustration filling my veins. I want to scream. But it’s not my son’s fault. This stress is my problem and it’s caused by one condition of my cognition: Comparing.

Every ounce of angst I feel is rooted in comparing my son. Comparing him to how he was yesterday. Comparing him to how I think he should be acting. Comparing him to the pseudo-perfect image I have of all my friends’ babies – advanced, sweet, and easy.

Parenting has taught me a lot about raising a child. But, it has taught me more about who I am. Each dad-dilemma with my son is just as much a battle against my own destructive thoughts. And, there is no thought that breaks down my ability to enjoy parenting than this endless comparing.

I realized this in the pool. We signed our son up for one of those aqua baby classes where kids float around like little chubs. Building awareness and safe habits around water is a good thing, but I find myself checking everything my son does against the other buoyant chubs.

I compare how strong, how large, how alert he is relative to his peers. I compare how many pool balls he retrieves compared to the other, clearly inferior, children. He wins the competition I created and my comparison yields pride. The next week he retrieves less and I analyze his deficiencies. We need to ramp up tub time training.

In reality, I don’t take these thoughts seriously. But they exist. They hover. They nag at my sanity, always asking, “Is my son developing well enough? Could he be better?”

This cognitive cancer of comparison is always there. That baby is just chillin’ in the grocery cart. My son is jittering like a junkie. Is he “normal”? Social media fuels the fire. His baby is already crawling. Should my son be? Her kid already has three teeth. Will my boy need dentures? In these ruminating moments, I have to snap myself out of it.

Stop. Just be present with your son and be his dad, not his coach, not his doctor, not his publicist. Your son needs caring attention, not comparing evaluation. He needs someone who can react to his smiles and his cries instead of researching and designing “perfect plans.”

These are the thoughts that are making me a better dad.

Comparing can serve a purpose by motivating us to take action when our child is languishing. Basic criteria for child development is critical for things like, y’know, intelligent medical decisions. Lack of standards can do more harm than good – as a teacher I’ve seen the ill effects of laissez faire parenting. But, likewise as a teacher I’ve seen the ill effects of students – and parents – who never feel like they are “enough.”

More often than not we take our comparison to an extreme. We plague ourselves with the pursuit of perfection. It is not our job, not our capability, to control every variable. It’s our job to be there, in the moment, with our kids as much as possible. We need to be more present.

Sure, we can make plans and inform ourselves. We can use standards to help our kids grow and develop. But we have to check ourselves when our comparisons spiral.

It is this lesson that has changed my interactions with my child (and my own sanity). Even as my child is crying for the third straight hour, I am a better dad when I check my comparisons.

We are fathers, not perfectors. So go hug and play with your children. Enjoy who they are and stop worrying for once about who you want them to be.

This post originally appeared on Kzoo Connect, a great site that features the amazing things happening in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  

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