“Comparison is the thief of joy” is an old saying that’s been Instagrammed, retweeted and pinned many a time — the reason obviously being it resonates with so many. But in a cruel twist of fate, people often find themselves doing exactly that (and, ironically, on these very platforms).
“It’s unfortunate, but we live in a culture that fosters competition and individualism over community and collectivism — and this certainly doesn’t exclude parents,” says Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, clinical psychologist and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide.” “There will always be another child who is smarter, more athletic, more talented, more obedient than yours, as well as kids who aren’t as smart, athletic, talented, obedient as yours. But comparing your kids to others is never a good idea, and bucking this trend requires intentionality and practice.”
According to Hershberg, when parents compare their kids to others, they wind up making them feel “less than” their peers.
“In turn, kids end up feeling bad about themselves, which is a risk factor for a range of negative outcomes down the road, such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse,” she says. “And on the flip side, kids who are made to feel ‘better than’ their peers may end up feeling good about themselves in the short-term, but in the long-term may become gold star junkies, reliant on external validation to achieve happiness or fulfillment.”
Whether you secretly find yourself wondering why your kid’s grades aren’t as good as her bestie’s or point out the well-behaved kids in a restaurant to your unruly lot, it’s time to stop taking stock of how your kids (and your parenting) measure up against others. Here, experts and parents offer insight into why you should stop comparing your kid to others and offer tips for putting a stop to this habit once and for all.
1. The comparison: The well-dressed, smiling Instagram kids vs. your disheveled kids who stick their tongues out for every photo
Any parent who takes a leisurely stroll through Instagram is bound to come across at least one photo of kids who are clean, well-dressed and, from the looks of things, playing beautifully with their siblings for hours on end with nary an argument. Scenes like this can cut deep for parents who are having a particularly trying day (or week) with kids who won’t stop arguing and who refuse to wear anything but a Moana shirt.
Why you shouldn’t compare: Social media isn’t reality. Just as you don’t feel “inspired” to hold a photo shoot with your kids when they’re covered in dirt and hanging from the rafters, other parents don’t post the bad stuff either. The key is keeping this in mind when you’re scrolling through your feed — for both your sanity and your child’s well-being.
“Instagram is a facade and usually not the reality of a person’s situation,” says psychotherapist Ali Hamroff of Liz Morrison Therapy in New York City. “When you buy into the belief that everything is perfect for certain people, you’re not only buying into a false narrative yourself, you also may be teaching your kid to compare themselves to people online, which is setting them up for failure. Kids who are constantly comparing themselves to people on social media will wind up striving to achieve something that is unattainable, which ultimately results in low self-esteem.”
2. The comparison: The all-star student vs. your average or below-average student
Feeling a little down or anxious when your child seems to be struggling in school is completely understandable because, ultimately, all parents want their kids to be successful. What’s not OK, though, is outright comparing your child’s performance in school to that of his peers.
Why you shouldn’t compare: “Comparing your kid to others — particularly the manner in which they perform at school — is a bad idea, plain and simple,” says Sean Grover, psychotherapist and author of “When Kids Call the Shots.” “When you do this, you’re attacking your child’s sense of self and making them feel like a failure. Essentially, you’re telling your child that you don’t believe in them, and this hurts them to their core, often resulting in behavior that’s destructive and oppositional.”
A better way to approach your child’s performance at school is to place the value on the actual work, instead of the result.
“While high marks in class are something that all parents want for their children, parents should instill the idea of trying your best and learning how to be a hard worker since these things are more valuable in life than actual grades,” Hamroff says.
And lastly, keep in mind, straight As don’t automatically translate to success later in life. There are a host of controllable factors that contribute to raising kids who are overall happy, prosperous and well-balanced later on in life — it isn’t just about the grades. Making sure your child knows they’re unconditionally loved, giving them responsibilities at home and within their community and allowing them to learn from their mistakes all help build characteristics that breed success in some form or another.
And on the flip side, putting too much pressure on your child to perform academically can backfire, resulting in a number of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
“I work with teens who graduated valedictorians of their high school, only to fall into crippling depression later in life,” says Grover. “There are no guarantees that the kids you’re comparing your child to are emotionally healthier or more stable than yours.”
3. The comparison: The sports star vs. your less-than-agile kiddo
Are you a bad parent if you wish your child would do more running on the soccer field than staring off into space? No. But don’t shame them for their dreamy ways. Instead, try cultivating whatever it is they’re passionate about.
Why you shouldn’t compare: “If a child feels like they’re not living up to their parents’ expectations, their self-esteem is going to decrease, and it can create a lot of insecurities within themselves,” says Hamroff. “On a more serious note, though, when you compare your child’s athleticism to someone else’s, they might resort to dangerous methods to increase their strength or athletic abilities [such as drugs], which can be both mentally and physically damaging.”
A better way to foster your child’s skills and abilities is to focus on the things they naturally gravitate toward.
“Instead of comparing your child to their peers, promote their talents and hobbies, it will improve their confidence and allow them to find their independence and uniqueness rather than just blending in,” says Hamroff.
“My husband and I sort of forced our son to play soccer since we played,” says mom of two Lauren Kent, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. “After about a year of watching him watch the ball roll past him, we realized he just wasn’t into it. He asked to play basketball instead and is much more into it!”
4. The comparison: The quiet, ‘easy’ kid vs. your boisterous, strong-willed child
When your child flat-out ignores you and continues to run around like a maniac when you’re trying to leave the playground, it’s easy to secretly wish they behaved more like their quiet friend who dutifully walked to their parents when they were called. But by doing this, you could be losing sight of the bigger picture.
Why you shouldn’t compare: “For the longest time, I wished my daughter was more quiet and ‘together’ during playdates,” says mom of two Julie Cortez, of Brooklyn, New York. “She was always the loudest, wildest one, and it took forever to get her to leave. Now, though, I realize that she was just acting like a toddler, and as she’s gotten older, her ‘wildness’ has transformed into admirable confidence and determination. I’m happy she’s like this!”
According to Grover, when you make surface comparisons, you’re not necessarily seeing the whole situation.
“The child who is too compliant and seeks only to please his parents may suffer from anxiety or depression or remain dependent on others for approval,” he says. “They may lack a strong voice or the ability to set healthy boundaries in relationships. Rather than develop a healthy sense of self-love, they constantly seek approval and validation. In other words: Just because some kids ‘listen’ better than others, it doesn’t mean they’re better off in the long-run.”
5. The comparison: The family with a lot of money vs. yours
The piano lessons. The cute clothes. The endless vacations. It’s easy to get down about your family finances when others seem to have it made in the money department. But in addition to keeping in mind that things aren’t always what they seem (the Johnson family may be living with a pile of debt, for all you know!), remember the age-old adage: Money doesn’t buy happiness.
Why you shouldn’t compare: “Just because a family has money, it doesn’t mean they’re content,” says Hamroff. “While on the outside, a family with a lot of money may look like they have it all, but there certainly are times families with money are not satisfied or happy in their life. Teaching your children that having a lot of money doesn’t equal success will help instill good values and morals. When your child grows up and is in a relationship of their own, it’s important they know that money is not what they should be looking for in a partner.”
6. The comparison: The well-behaved children vs., well, yours
Most parents have been there at one point or another. You’re in line at the store or out to dinner and the kids are acting, in a word, feral. And as if the non-stop whines for “just one toy” or spilled drinks aren’t enough to drive you mad, sometimes, in a particularly cruel twist of fate, there’s the seemingly perfectly-behaved kids within a stone’s throw of yours. Is it a drag? Of course. But again, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Why you shouldn’t compare: “When you see you the perfectly behaved child at the restaurant while yours is dipping his bread in the water, you’re seeing a two-dimensional scene without any depth or context,” says Hershberg. “Who knows what that family’s story is? Maybe last week, that child was sticking peas up his nose. Or more to the point, maybe he has a medical issue that leads to chronic low energy and what you’re idealizing is actually his parents’ daily nightmare.”
According to Hershberg, when parents beat themselves up in the moment for how their child is behaving, it only serves to make the situation worse.
“If you genuinely feel like your child needs to learn better manners, getting down on yourself about that isn’t going to lead you to take positive action toward that end,” she says. “And remember: Don’t compare your outtakes to other people’s highlight reels.”
In the end, focus on the positive
For better or worse, comparisons are ingrained in human nature, but it’s important for parents to keep in mind that, when they do this with their children (and particularly when they let their children know they’re doing this), they’re laying the groundwork for a poor sense of self.
“Rather than compare your child, celebrate their strengths,” says Grover. “Help them develop their unique talents. Give them a sense of pride in their identity. Positive reinforcement is always better than negative comparisons. Celebrating your child awakens a natural drive to achieve more. They are more ambitious, more connected and more empathic.”