comparison: hurtful or helpful?

Today’s topic is one of the greatest sources of inter-parental strife: comparison.

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t compare your kids.  As far as I can tell, comparison is hard-wired into the human brain.  The way our brains make sense of the world around us is by categorizing and comparing.  Even simple description is based on comparison:  “My son is the tall blonde one.”  This sentence only makes sense if you know what blonde is as compared to brunette or redheaded and what tall means when you’re looking at a group of kids playing.

Comparison, like anger, is not evil by nature; it’s what you do with it that counts.  I naturally compare my kids’ sleeping habits (hallelujah that numbers two and three have both been better sleepers), their initial responses to solid food (they all made faces—but my current baby doesn’t like baby food, he likes big people food), their growth (each child has been bigger—I’d better stop while I’m in one piece), their likes and dislikes.

I can tell you that Peatie has always been a giggler, while Goobie is more reserved; Ender is the smilingest baby anyone has ever met.  I can tell you that Peatie is fascinated by the way things work and is compiling a mental atlas to rival Rand-McNally.  I can tell you that Goobie has always been excellent at doing puzzles and that she speaks almost as well as her big brother (more clearly, by most accounts, but with slightly less mastery of complex sentences).

Knowing this does not make me a bad mother; in fact, I’d argue that good mothers ought to know the differences between their children (and maybe even between their children and their children’s friends).  It’s what you do with this knowledge that defines its merit.  Hopefully you celebrate each child’s unique personality and accomplishments.

Obviously, parents realize that not all personality quirks are laudable.  I’m trying to help Peatie develop more responsibility for his things, urging Goobie not to do things solely for their brother-antagonizing power.  But in general, each child’s personality and accomplishments can be celebrated separately, comparing without lamenting.

Chalk "A" and person drawingToday I’m proud of all three of my kids.

This morning, Peatie made an A all by himself.  He’s been interested in making letters for a while, but he hasn’t been able to control his hand well enough to create anything recognizable until now.

Goobie “made Gwamma nice and pwiddy.”  She’s been making a few letters recently—a random G, L, V, or ? added to a page of scribbles—but this was her first recognizable picture.

And this afternoon, Ender figured out how to get his knees under his gut, dig his toes into the carpet, and propel himself forward.  He’s not moving fast, but he’s now a baby on the move.

Three achievements on three different kid-timelines.  Three reasons for this Mommy to be so excited about my kids’ development and proud of their success.  Now if only my perspective were as uniformly healthy when it came to observing other people’s children, I’d be all set!  (My success with rational inter-family comparison depends on the day.)

What’s your take on comparison?  Can you share stories of your child (or listen to others’ stories) without feeling like you’re playing a game of one-upmanship with friends?  Can you view one child without drawing unhelpful comparisons to others?


4 thoughts on “comparison: hurtful or helpful?

  1. Great point on highlighting that comparisons aren’t inherently evil. I admit I compare my kid to others, and find that it’s most hurtful when I make assessments based on that comparison. It’s fine to say that this boy is more outgoing than this girl, for instance, but it would be unfair for the girl to cast her as the shy one forever and ever or that she somehow has something to work on.

    One positive way I use comparisons is to see how my kid can grow. For instance, if another kid is already taking off his shoes, then rather than thinking, “Why isn’t my kid as advanced as this kid and taking off shoes?!” I’d stop the freak out and instead help my kid take off his shoes. And if it takes him a while or isn’t interested, then there’s no need to pursue it.

    Being aware of comparisons already makes a person a step ahead of the game. Just knowing that you’re culpable of doing that makes you more mindful not to use it to a kid’s detriment.

    I wrote a post about this to explain a bit more of my thoughts:

    • Woah–that was a pretty recent post! Great minds must think alike…

      Love your thoughts! In my more sane moments, I am able to do as you do, using comparison merely as a springboard for new ideas of things my kids might have coming down the pipe or things to work on. In my less sane moments, I try to mentally balance any advancement by another kid with a “Yeah, but MY kid…” I think I have a bit of a competitive streak, but I have to remind myself that life is not a competitive sport. (Was it once? Is that why humans tend to be competitive?)

      I also like your above stipulation about not allowing a child’s characteristic to forever define them: just because they’re shy at age two doesn’t mean that you should always refer to them as “the shy one”, thus limiting their potential. I have to keep reminding myself to be careful of my language so as not to box my kids in.

  2. My hubby and I have a friendship with another couple that currently has kids (I am just expecting my first). They are in constant comparison mode with just about everything (we bought a BBQ the next week they got a bigger BBQ, silly things like that). We both have two dogs each, and I feel like we can’t share anything with out the whole “Well, my dog does, did etc”. I know with kids it’s going to be worse!

    That being said we are not innocent of this behaviour, (like you said hard-wired) we just notice it and try to avoid it a little more. I like comparison to understand the beauty of difference, but not everything is a competition.

    • Wow, it sounds like that relationship would be pretty frustrating–and might be moreso once your little one arrives. I always wonder what makes some people more driven to compete like that. It’s a bit sad; I would think it would make for a stressful existence.

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