Parenting young children — 14 August 2008
Children are unique – avoid comparing them

Many parents inadvertently voice their satisfaction or displeasure with one child by comparing him/her to a sibling. They may utter their disappointments about their children’s performance or nature in a way that may cause the youngsters great grief and even a lifelong emotional struggle.

Even the best parents occasionally compare one child to another in an effort to propel one to change or improve his/her ways. For example, a parent may praise one child’s skills in order to motivate another sibling to become more studious, a hard worker or more attentive. One adult woman remembers her mother imploring her brother to study more by saying: “ Look at your sister, she studies hard and long to get good grades, it would not take you half the time to learn it all perfectly.” It did not help her brother study more, and only made the little girl conclude that she was unintelligent. This false self-perception plagued her for years and hindered her vocational aspirations and success.

Another parent, a personally frustrated athlete, was profoundly disappointed in his exceptionally well-coordinated child’s unimpressive achievements due to the child’s non-competitive temperament. “I wish your brother inherited your talents, he would definitely have become a star by now. He is not lazy.” In this family, both boys were traumatized by these repeated comments. The athletically gifted child believed he was a disappointment to his dad and felt chronic guilt for not measuring up. The driven child felt humiliated for his brother and determined that being goal oriented is a liability, hindering him from actively pursuing and achieving his dreams and aspirations.

Dr. Kramer studied parental preferential treatment of children and adolescents regarding: parental control (being more strict with one child) and affection, (showing more interest or enjoyment in one child). He found that the sibling getting preferential treatment did not necessarily have a better self-esteem. “Children receiving better treatment than a sibling may have difficulties if they do not believe they are entitled to it. ”

In some families parents regard one child’s achievements, looks, preferences, and attributes as “superior” or “inferior” in terms of the parents’ biases, based on their own inclinations. For example, shy, private parents may feel uneasy about a social child, health conscious parents may feel embarrassed by an overweight son or daughter, outgoing parents may be critical of an introverted bookish offspring. A child whose ways strongly diverge from the family “norms” may be shunned and negatively compared to the sibling who is more akin to the parents’ style.

Since children’s self-view stems primarily from their parents’ messages and attitudes and since each child vies for the unconditional approval of his/her parents, any non-approving, derogatory or unfavorable comparisons to a siblings (or any other youngster), may generate feelings of inadequacy, shame, inferiority, and may set the course for a less than fulfilling life for the child.

Parents want the best for their children and are often completely unaware of the potential harm their disappointments, comparisons and even some forms of encouragements may have on their children’s life-long wellbeing.

Parents.

• Be aware that every word, gesture and opinion you express may seriously impact your child’s self esteem, personal decisions and wellbeing for life.
• Every small child and adolescent possesses wonderful attributes that are uniquely his or hers.
• Abstain from comparing your children’s personalities, accomplishments or ways. It is at least ineffective and at worst harmful to both children.
• With the exception of values and morals, avoid viewing your personal preferences as the correct ones and your child’s the incorrect options.
• Comparing children may cause a sibling rift and loss of connection as it separates the youngsters and may weaken their bonding and brotherly/sisterly love.
• Regularly affirm each child for his/her gifts and positive traits. This builds your child’s confidence for life and frees him/her to follow their dreams and achieve a more fulfilling life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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