“SHALL I COMPARE THEE TO A SUMMERS DAY?” (Shakespeare)
When I was young I knew I was very loved, my parents were wonderful. One set of grandparents were always with us – for weekends, festivities and holidays. They too were loving, gentle, supportive, kind – all the things you want your grandparents to be and more. My mum and dad were both only children, so our grandparents were in our lives quite a lot.
My other set of grandparents were totally different. Very self-absorbed – every story was about them, quite Victorian (we were told not to speak unless we’d been spoken to when in their house), very much ‘glass half empty’ kind of people. They very rarely came to our house, I found out later that they didn’t approve of my wonderful dad and felt my mum had married beneath her! But we visited them every other weekend – and hated it. So many times we left there and either I or my sister would be in tears getting into the car.
Why? My nan (I found out when I was 15 that she was actually my step-nan) had a niece that she adored. Her niece had two daughters, one of them almost exactly the same age as me – I’ll call her Abigail. My nan was constantly holding me up against her, comparing – I always came off worst and deficient! If I passed my 11 plus, Abigail had got a scholarship. If I had my hair cut, Abigail’s hair was a flowing wonder down past her shoulders. If I made the netball team, Abigail had just been made Team Captain – I became a teacher, Abigail became a LAWYER … you get the drift.
I had extremely low self-esteem as a child and later in life. I had little confidence, I always felt ‘not good enough’, I missed opportunities, it was difficult for me to talk to people in some social settings. I moved abroad, I was in a very social expat environment, I got a great job, got married – and started to get my confidence back. Years later I was having therapy after my sister took her own life. All of a sudden these visits to my grandparents came gushing out of my sub-consciousness – my feeling of being deficient and unworthy. It was a total revelation, but it explained a lot.
The moral of this story? Never compare your child to another, not another sibling, a friend, someone in their class or school or on TV… just don’t do it!
Comparison isn’t a positive experience for anyone (unless you’re the one being held up as the great example!), but it‘s all the more damaging for children. Children are sensitive souls and they don’t take too well to negative criticism. Especially if the criticism involves telling them how others are better than they are in some way “Why can’t you draw like her?” “Why can’t you behave yourself like him?” These remarks can be innocuous, never meant to harm, flippantly said – but can still do harm. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t point out any mistakes and help them improve, but do it in a positive, constructive way. Progress and achievement should be shown as something to help them personally, and not to make them better than others.
Here are some of the most important reasons that, I feel, are why we shouldn’t compare our children with others.
1. It may cause low self-esteem
Being that we are not good at something and that there are others who are brilliant at it, sows the seeds of self-doubt. Self doubt “Can I ever be good enough?” can lead to low self-esteem.
2. It may harm your relationship
Children are vulnerable emotionally, and you are the person they look up to. They seek your approval and they need you on their side. By comparing you are putting others above them, it may lead to negative feelings and they may not feel safe telling you things in case it’s not good enough.
3. It may cause negativity
Why even try to do something if you can never measure up? Children may start to avoid new tasks and challenges if they are afraid to fail, or think they will fail. These are negatives thoughts and feelings about themselves. Negativity isn’t good for anyone’s wellbeing. We all want to help our children have positive attitudes about what they can do and what they might attempt.
4. It may cause anxiety and nervousness
As I said before, your child seeks your approval. If they feel they’re not meeting your expectations they may lose their confidence, feel anxious and nervous in case they let you down or displease you.
5. It may cause jealousy
Comparisons against an older sibling or a class mate or friend can cause extreme jealousy. Jealousy is a strong negative feeling and could lead to bad feelings against the other child, dislike and perhaps even aggression.
We can’t always be perfect parents, we all get tired, worried, upset, cross … We all do things wrong from time to time. It’s part of being human.
What’s important is to let our children grow each day in a positive environment, tell them every day how special they are, seek to praise them as unique and individual. Teach them that it’s OK to make mistakes, to get things wrong, that it’s how we learn to do it better next time, and the time after that. Teach them what is important is to do and to try.