Ever heard a parent of a 3-month-old say, “My baby is just like me when I was that age”? Of course not. But when it comes to parents of teens, detailed comparisons and contrasts abound. Why do we do this? Probably because we remember the highlights of our teenhood so much better than our toddlerhood.
I recently asked one of the wisest parents I know for her No. 1 parenting tip. Her reply? Stop all the comparisons! Don’t compare a child to yourself at his or her age; don’t compare a child to his or her siblings; don’t compare a child to relatives, friends, classmates, co-parents or anyone else. Just observe your children as individuals, attend to their developmental needs, and enjoy them for who they are at every point in time. Comparisons imply judgement and distract us from the child in front of us. Even positive comparisons — e.g., “you’re so much neater than your cousin” — foster labels and conditional love.
My friend admits avoiding comparisons takes constant effort. But part of the reason to avoid them is that we already live in a hypercompetitive culture that categorizes children constantly. Children are judged physically, emotionally and academically many times a day. Today’s kids also grow up in the heat of social media, a technology that seems to confirm Theodore Roosevelt’s famous declaration: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Granted, a few areas of comparison can be useful. For example, a child’s physical growth chart makes sure he or she is developing appropriately in relation to peers. Comparison can also help cultivate children’s sense of gratitude and empathy in relation to those less fortunate in society. And if a child is struggling with a recurring problem, it can be helpful to act as a historian and remind the child of similar plights he or she has overcome in the past.
For example, my younger teen is now a roller coaster connoisseur, but as a child she could barely stomach the whirring, ever-so-slow horsey ride at our local mall. When I feel a self-comparison might help her overcome an obstacle, I remind her of her triumphant first roller coaster ride. In other words, self-comparisons can sometimes help children recall “game changers” from their own past, those paradigm-shifting moments that help solidify a new identity of competence.
So how might one avoid using comparisons?
Beyond these exceptions, try to avoid — or at least minimize — the temptation to make comparisons. One way to avoid comparisons is to develop a personal mantra. Whenever you feel a comparison about to sprout, use a mantra like “stay in my child’s lane,” “it’s only about him or her” or “focus on the here and now.”
Another way to deflate comparisons is to reflect on all the surprising outcomes from our own childhood (though this is yet another comparison). Probably all of us know high school classmates whose lives and versions of success veered far from the peers to whom they were constantly — and needlessly — compared.
I acknowledge avoiding comparisons is a daily struggle. I recently fell victim again while touring a college campus with my older daughter. As a student showed us her dorm room, I blurted out: “Wow! This is a double? It’s so much bigger than mine was.” The young woman replied sheepishly, “Yeah, we’re spoiled.” My daughter’s eyes shot me a dagger, and I felt bad for interjecting. Focus on the here and now!
Long before taking care of children, I took care of lawns. That experience led to my earliest mantra for life: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but who knows what chemicals that guy is using?” It’s not exactly Roosevelt, and it’s not directly about parenting. But feel free to borrow it the next time you’re tempted to compare your children to anyone but themselves.