As human beings we desire to live fully, and, in order to do so, we aim at excellence. We wish to do well in everything that we engage in. But, in our role as parents, we tend to go a step further in desiring the same of their children by quoting examples of other children who are better than our own, as far as certain skills are concerned. For example, we might say, “Look at the way Sapna participates in debates. She is so confident. Why can’t you be like her?”
When we make such statements or pose such questions, we don’t realise what message we are actually trying to convey. Are we encouraging the child or are we undermining her capacity?
Are we trying to make a comparison or pass judgement?
Comparing vs Judging
For a parent, it is important to understand the difference between comparing and judging. Comparing is about assessing the differences in qualities, whereas judging highlights the differences to show how one is superior to the other.
Most of the time, comparison is more acceptable to a child than passing judgement. It is so because concealed within comparison is a verbal or non-verbal acknowledgement that each child has his own strengths and is different from the other. So, a simple comparison of qualities is non-threatening and free of blame, and, therefore, more acceptable than judgement. But most parents don’t understand the difference between comparing and judging.
As a result, sometimes, parents present other children as role models by saying, “See how Shantanu helps in household chores. You must do that too,” or “Ragini is really focussed on maths and practises on a regular basis.” What parents don’t comprehend is that although children listen to them silently, they dislike such examples and feel annoyed.
So, should you stop comparing children or acknowledging that another child is better at something? In his article, Dr Bennett says it is impossible for humans to stop comparing. But now that you know the difference between comparing and judging, before citing examples of other children, ask yourself the following question: ‘Will my example refer to a certain quality of the other child or will it highlight the differences and make my child feel inferior and bad?’
According to Pam Leo, an independent scholar in human development, “You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” Her statement can be used as a benchmark to understand whether what you said has hurt your child or been accepted. Your child’s reaction to your remarks can help you gauge whether she perceived your remarks as comparison or judgement. Also, you can directly ask your child how your remarks made her feel.
Let’s look at how we can use comparison positively to encourage our children to do better.
Best supportive practices
Imagine that your child needs to improve in a certain area. How can you communicate your observations to him in a way that it does not hurt him, yet ensures the progress you’d like to see?
First, you should be clear about the quality you want your child to develop. Do you want him to be more responsible? Or more active? Maybe you want him to have a more disciplined schedule. The key to developing the required trait lies in being specific. Make a mental note of the areas where you would like your child to progress. Think deeply about it for 2–3 days and work out a strategy. Carry the idea in your mind for a while before reviewing it. Giving yourself time to think about it will help you pinpoint the areas that need change, and the plan of action, objectively. Act on your plan only after you conclude that it is a good one.
Next, share your thoughts with your child and ask him how he feels about it. Convey to him that the change you would like to see relates only to a particular quality and not to him as a whole. It is very important to convey this distinction to the child. Remind yourself that your child has many admirable qualities and ask yourself if you acknowledge them often; if you find that you don’t, make it a point to do so. This will make it easier for him to listen to what you are asking of him and to understand that you sincerely want his good. But also be prepared for the possibility that your child may not accept your ideas. Rejection of your ideas may annoy you, but be patient with your child and with yourself too.
Most importantly, don’t try hard to make changes overnight. The attempt is likely to backfire. Be patient and focus only on the quality you would like your child to develop.
A child’s response to judgemental comparisons
How does judgmental comparison across ages make a child feel? From Howard Bennett’s perspective, comparison makes a child feel worse about herself. She feels insecure and senses that she is being judged. This is likely to make her feel irritated and sad.
If you don’t acknowledge your child’s efforts and do not allow her to express herself openly, feelings of anger and resentment start to pile up. The pent-up anger may manifest in various ways. One of them is overeating – the underlying motivation is to fill the void she feels. Under-eating due to a lack of appetite is another. Stammering and mood swings are other possible signs of pent-up anger in a child. She may also become defensive and argue often, get into verbal or physical fights or become withdrawn.
But if you provide her with opportunities to express herself, it will calm her emotions and she will be able to reconnect with you with relative ease.
The ideal space for growth
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to comparisons, as their minds are in a state of turmoil due to the ongoing physical and emotional changes. They shouldn’t feel that they are being judged for sharing something or for being wrong, or feel insecure due to a fear of being cornered. What they need is unconditional support and the knowledge that they can rely on someone.
Children need an environment in which they feel physically and emotionally safe, and have the freedom to express and experiment with ideas. Living in such a space makes them feel nourished and accepted. It makes them accept and like themselves. They also have high self-esteem and a lot of confidence. This makes them feel calm, which reflects in their relationships with parents and friends. The availability of such space and acceptance – be it silent or vocal – can work magic for both children and adults. As a parent who is a part of such an environment, you too will find that you have developed a deeper connection with yourself and will be more open to experimenting with new ideas and facing life’s challenges.
Parul enjoys holding space for people and is a Psychologist who is passionately practicing Compassionate Communication. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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