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The Comparison Free Family

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Your brother has never been sent to the office.
Your cousin Matthew remembered his Mom’s birthday.
Joanna is the athletic one.

Whenever you have two or more children it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made. One talks your ear off while the other barely says a word. One keeps her room neat and tidy while the other doesn’t.  It’s impossible to not notice the differences.  This kind of observation isn’t just relegated to families with more than one child. It’s just as easy for a parent of an only child to compare their child to a friend or relative, or even to themselves when they were young.

It’s important to consider how kids feel when we talk about these differences. Is it a way to spur a little healthy competition in order to bring out their best or does it simply create problems? As you’ve probably already guessed from the title of this article, I believe comparisons are heavily loaded with minuses and offer no real benefits to your family. They are powerful messages that can interfere with relationships and self-esteem, and their negative impact can be felt for a lifetime.

There is a natural competition that exists between siblings but the happiest relationships are ones where this tendency is downplayed; where each sibling can feel respected and valued without referencing the other.  Siblings are keenly sensitive to comparisons and the worst outcome is that one becomes resentful of the other because of this practice.  This can be so damaging it can actually poison the sibling relationship.  My parents don’t think I’m as nice as my sister – she’s such a goody two-shoes.  I can’t stand her!  Another huge problem is that a child may feel they don’t measure up to a sibling in some way and simply feel less adequate and discouraged. My brother is always so thoughtful-- I’m just not as nice as he is.

Many parents find comparisons are difficult to avoid even when you try to steer clear of them.  They have a way of slipping out unintentionally.  Imagine the following:  Your child comes home from school and gives you a big warm hug and a kiss. You think about how affectionate she is and how her sister doesn’t show affection as easily (remember, it’s easy to compare).  Then out of your mouth, without a second thought, the difference is mentioned. You’re so sweet.  Your sister doesn’t remember to give me such nice hugs.  There was no ill-intent behind the comment, just a desire to reinforce the sweet behaviour. Or perhaps you’ve talked to your son repeatedly about cleaning up after himself when he uses the bathroom sink. His brother doesn’t seem to have a problem remembering and you find it’s been left messy again.   In a moment of frustration, you compare: Your brother always keeps the bathroom sink clean.  Why can’t you?  All you want is for your son to take better care of the bathroom.

In both of these examples comparisons are used in an attempt to motivate kids so they’ll try a little harder or encourage them to keep doing the right thing.  Here are some tips to motivate while leaving unwanted comparisons out of it.

Ditch the comparative labels

Susanna is the creative one.  Jenna is the logical thinker.

Whenever we give kids a label like this we imply a comparison.  The unspoken message is that Susanna is more creative than her sibling – and this idea creates a thorny problem for both siblings.  Susanna may feel the label means she has to be creative and artistic in order to keep the respect of her parents while Jenna may feel it means she doesn’t have the gift of creativity and simply can’t be that way.   In truth, both siblings have the potential to be creative and logical thinkers. We are self-determining and can be whatever we want as long as we decide to put our strengths to good use.    Encouragement is always best without a label.  Acknowledge strengths without resorting to them. “I really like the way you shaded the trees in your picture.  They are very realistic-looking.” As for the “non-creative” sibling – look for opportunities to point out how creative she is too. Catch her thinking outside the box or using her artistic flair.  Before you know it, you’ll have two creative daughters with good logical skills instead of just one.

Don't praise excessively in front of siblings

Lavishing praise on one in front of the other is often hard for the one who isn’t receiving it. Oh my gosh, you got an A on the exam?!  I am so incredibly proud of you!  Honey, did you hear?  Brandon got an A!!! You are such an amazing math genius Brandon.  Siblings know they’re supposed to be proud of their brother or sister, but it’s hard not to wonder, “Do you think I’m good in math too?”  If you feel one is deserving of special recognition because they got an A on a big test or made the basketball team, acknowledge the special achievement in front of everyone but keep it low-key while siblings are present.  You don’t have to start whooping and dancing.  A warm smile, a touch, or words of congratulations are enough. When you are alone with that child you can gush all you want. 

Avoid telling stories about one in front of the other

“When Marina was little she used to be able to recite her storybooks just by looking at the pictures.” Again, it begs the question, “Could I do that too when I was little?”  Although parents may love to talk about their kids when they were little, many siblings report discomfort with the practice.  Watch for reactions and skip them if anyone seems uncomfortable listening to these tales.

Watch out for subtle comparisons

Often, we imply comparisons in our observations and statements without realizing it.  Your brother’s boots were put away.  Federica remembered to hold the door open. These statements imply that one is being more cooperative or thoughtful than the other without saying it directly. Unfortunately, kids are very adept at picking up these subtle messages. Parents say these things to encourage better behaviour by showing them the good example of others, but kids have a radar-like sensitivity to being compared and the takeaway message is that they aren’t being as good as someone else. The problems mentioned above are inherent even in these subtle messages. It’s essential that we let them know there are no favorites. One does not please us more, one is not loved more, and one is not respected more.  Children need to feel you are fair and that there’s unconditional love and acceptance. The less you compare the easier this is to do.

Blatant comparisons on the other hand are much less common, but hurt much more.  You aren’t as thoughtful as your cousin.  You never remember to put your boots away like your brother does.  These comparisons create feelings of discouragement and increase sibling competition significantly.

The best way to deal with children’s differences is to make the following rule and stick to it.

Acknowledge children’s differences in your mind, or privately with your partner (out of earshot of the child), but don’t talk about them. That’s it. There are no positive benefits for your child when you talk about how they are different from others physically, behaviourally, or in their character traits.


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