The minute we embark on our journey of parenthood, we start to compare notes with other parents. We benchmark ourselves and our experiences against those of the other parents we know. How did you feel during your pregnancy? How big was your belly? How swollen were your ankles? And once our baby comes along, we start to benchmark his progress. When did he eat solid foods? How many hours does he sleep at night? When did he roll over? When did he crawl? When did he walk and talk? Benchmarks are good. Benchmarks allow us to determine developmental milestones and enable us to keep track of our child’s physical, mental and emotional development. It allows us to have those all important conversations with our doctors if our child is not meeting his developmental benchmarks. Early intervention has proven to be crucial in children with developmental delays.
The problem arises when instead of observing our child’s individual growth and progress and seeking help if needed, we compare our child to either his siblings or other children and judge him for being different. Why can’t you write faster? Why can’t you be neater? Look at Mrs. Sharma’s son. He studies everyday and gets 90 per cent and above in all his subjects. We all fall into the comparison trap.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” By comparing our child to his siblings or other children, we run the risk of losing sight of what makes our child special and unique. All of us are different in our own way. We have different skills, interests, personality traits and abilities that make us who we are. And the same applies to our children. By constantly comparing our child to other children, we increase his anxiety and stress levels. Children want to please their parents and not being able to do so can make them anxious. It can lower their self-esteem when they start to believe that everybody is better than they are. They begin to feel incapable of being good at anything. They may start to shy away from social situations and are hesitant to participate in groups. They may feel that nothing they do is good enough and as a result, they may stop trying at all. It may foster resentment towards their parents, siblings or other children they are being compared to. So, what can we as parents do about it?
Be aware. Sometimes, we speak before we think. When we are trying to get our child to do something, the most natural thing in the world is to say, why can’t you be more like your classmate? Be conscious of every time you compare your child to another child. Think about what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. What is the habit that you would like to change? Why does your child find it difficult? Does he lack a skill set to perform the task? By taking the time to think about it, we remain in the observational zone and do not move immediately into the judgmental zone.
Use benchmarks only to track your child’s individual growth and progress. “A few months ago, you were barely able to read a whole sentence. Now, you’re able to read a full paragraph. That’s good progress.” Don’t say, “At your age, your brother was reading the whole book.” It negates the efforts that he has put in. Focus on tracking only his achievements and not in comparison to anybody else. Every child develops at a different pace. It doesn’t mean that they are not progressing at all. In school, a child’s progress is still marked in comparison to the rest of the class. Children are still ranked in terms of test scores. It shouldn’t matter what marks their classmate has gotten in their exams. Has your child understood the concept? Has he been able to communicate his understanding effectively? Has he improved from the last test?
Talk to your child about his areas of improvement. Collaborate and make plans to help build and improve upon his skills sets. “I notice that you are finding math addition sums a little difficult. What do you think we can do to help make it easier?” By communicating with your child, you create a safe zone for him to come to you with his problems. It helps him develop a problem solving approach as he realises that there is always a way forward.
Recognise and celebrate his inherent strengths and talents. Encourage him to pursue his interests and to take pride in his efforts and achievements. This will help develop his self-confidence and self-worth. One of your children may be naturally athletic while another may be good in art. It’s okay for them to have different interests and shine in different areas. As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it’s stupid.”
Unfortunately, comparisons are deeply entrenched in our society. Our children are surrounded by adults —teachers, grandparents, family members — who will invariably compare your child to his siblings or other children they know. As they grow older, social media too will play a role in helping them determine their self-worth. As they scroll through newsfeeds and see only ‘the highlights’ of people’s lives, they may start to compare themselves to their peers. And feel disillusioned and disappointed.
If we start early enough, we can lay a strong foundation of self-worth and self-belief for them to fall back on. Keep reinforcing your message to your children. Teach them to take pride in their efforts and not just their achievements. Encourage them to be intrinsically motivated and not rely on external validation. And hopefully, we can raise our children to avoid ‘the comparison trap’.