We love our kids! And all every parent wants if for their children to be happy and successful. Sometimes we unintentionally do the opposite of what cultivates healthy self-esteem. For example, there’s hardly a parent in the world who hasn’t said something like this to a child in a moment of exasperation: “Look at your brother—he jumps right on his homework after school! Why do I always have to nag you to get yours done?” “Your sister’s a whiz at math, but all you want to do is draw.” Or “Stop giving me attitude! Can’t you just be polite like your brother?”
Even when our children play sports. For instance, “Doesn’t soccer look fun? Your sister is so good at it, and I bet you would be too.” I can hear you thinking “So what’s wrong with that? It’s true, isn’t it? And I’m just trying to motivate my child and show them a good example!”
Even positive comparison creates pressure or can make a child feel like you're disappointed in them.
The Negative Effects of Comparison on Self-Esteem
Parents who compare one child to another may be well-intentioned, but comparison can have a negative effect on the child’s self-esteem and their budding individuality. Instead of seeking out their natural abilities and developing them, children who are frequently compared to a sibling or friend may do one or more of the following:
- Seek to get the parent’s approval by trying to keep up with the other child, even if they dislike the activity, are stressed, or it’s not something they’re naturally inclined to do.
- Get discouraged and become passive.
- Differentiate by doing the opposite of a sibling, even if their sibling is doing exactly what they love and are good at.
- Don’t try at all, or do a lousy job.
- Feel unheard and unseen, and perhaps spend a lot of time alone.
- Act out in other ways to avoid the unpleasant feelings of comparison.
Why Comparison Is Unhelpful in Parenting
Comparison is unhelpful because it causes a child to feel like their job is to become like someone else, instead of to discover who they are and what brings them joy and fulfillment. If the child’s intention is to get approval from parents or teachers for what others are good at, it can be at the expense of what the child feels or what is important to them. Comparison often causes children to stuff their emotions.
The more children and teens learn to look for others to affirm them, the less secure their self-esteem becomes. Avoiding disapproval or habitually seeking approval from parents or teachers deteriorates their internal compass and their self-acceptance.
Only the child truly knows what they feel, what they love, what they dislike, what is fulfilling to them, and what is not.
Children’s hearts and bodies propel them in the direction of their natural inclinations and abilities. For example, a child with high, intense energy will typically not like baseball because it is too slow, but a child who is quieter and slower-moving may enjoy it. No two children are alike, not even twins!
When children don’t experience the power of making their own decisions, the muscles of being true to themselves atrophy. When they don’t follow their heart, their unique passions, talents, gifts, and contributions may never develop. Then they miss out on the natural unfolding of intrinsic rewards and well-earned results: measured competence, success, value, meaning, and connection. And they are swimming against the tide of their truth.
Build Children's Self-Esteem through Meaningful Conversation
Consider how different your child could feel if you opened conversations with them like this, instead of comparing them with their siblings:
“It seems like you have a hard time doing your homework right after school. Could you tell me why that’s so hard for you?” or “I’ve noticed you struggle to do homework right after school. Would it help to play outside after school and do your homework right after dinner?”
“I see that you really love to draw. Will you show me some of the things you’ve done lately and tell me about them?”
“Is there something special you would like to do after school? It could be a sport or something else.”
“I’ve noticed that you’ve been very curt with me lately. Is there something we need to discuss?” or “Have you noticed the way you’ve been speaking to me lately? It’s so unlike you. I’m wondering if you’re angry about something and want to talk.”
You can help your children determine what is important to them by asking open-ended questions that lead them back to their own hearts. You can also help a child discover emotions or behaviors that point to what they want or a skill they may lack.
Once you understand their feelings and desires better, you can support them by encouraging them to be themselves, not someone else, and help them build healthy self-esteem. Isn’t that what we really want for each of our children?
Related reading: "Positive Parenting: 3 Strategies for Greater Patience."
For more support with a parenting coach, contact us at Heartmanity.