Comparing seems to be part of human nature. We compare ourselves to others; we compare our children to each other and to other children; we compare our spouses to others; and on and on. Comparing the heart rate or blood sugar levels of a given number of people might be beneficial in determining the range in which people maintain good health, and perhaps we can even say that by comparing children’s abilities and establishing a range of “normal,” we can determine which children have difficulties and how to help them. But comparing ourselves with others, and in particular our children to other children, can have very damaging effects. Why and how do we compare our children? And why is it so harmful?
One of the most common reasons we compare children is to motivate them. “Look how nicely your sister is sitting and doing her homework. Why can’t you organize yourself the way she does?” “You should learn a lesson from your brother. He always helps out when he’s asked.” When we compare siblings in this way, we are conveying a message that one child is worth more in our eyes. The less favored child, rather than feeling motivated to emulate his sibling, feels resentment towards him or her, while the more favored child might feel sorry for his or her sibling as well as pressure to maintain his or her status. The damage is threefold: we have inadvertently put a condition on our own relationship with our children, we have harmed the relationship between them, and we have further locked them into their respective behaviors.
Another way we compare children is by judging and grading them. We set up a standard of comparison, and then see where a child fits into this standard. “This child is my good eater. He eats everything. But the others are so picky!” “This is my responsible child. But my other daughter… I can never count on her for anything.” “This child is my astronaut. I have to nag him about everything.” When we judge children and grade them in this way, we fail to see that they are capable of developing many different abilities which can grow with our help, support and belief in them.
Yet another way we compare children is by labeling them. “My son can’t sit still like the other children. He’s hyperactive.” “My daughter is the only one who won’t accept any authority. She’s so defiant.” Labels such as these that put the focus on a child’s behavior can lead parents down the path of searching for a medical diagnosis of some kind, and even to medicating the child.
In all of these cases, our main focus is the child’s behavior or performance. We set a standard for desirable behavior and then go about trying to shape that behavior or conclude that this is the child’s nature and there’s no hope for change. It reminds me of the new fruit trees that we recently planted in our garden. They are all about the same age, but each one is growing fruit at a different rate. The avocado tree is bearing small avocados on some of the tree’s branches, while there is no fruit at all yet on the peach tree. One mango has appeared on the mango tree, while the clementina tree has hints of tiny fruit dotted throughout the tree. No matter how much I compare them, they each continue to grow at their own pace.
When we try to fit children into a certain standard and compare them, we fail to see who they truly are and what they need in order to grow. One of the things that children need most for growth is rest, since all growth occurs during rest. Rest does not mean “sleep” or sitting quietly, but rather rest from having to find one’s secure place, rest from searching for belonging, rest from working to be accepted and approved of, rest from trying to measure up to someone’s standard, rest from trying to be special in someone’s eyes. In a culture or system in which comparing children is used to motivate, grade or label them, there is no state of rest and children cannot be creative, discover their own individuality and reach their full human potential. Our new Power to Parent course explains this more at length.
Shoshana Hayman is Director of Life Center- Center for Attachment Parenting, Faculty Member of the Neufeld Institute, and Lecturer at the Lander Institute-Jerusalem Academic Center. www.lifecenter.org.il 1599-550-777