Kids and comparison: We can’t shield them from it, but we can do THIS

Photo above by Cdoncel via Unsplash.

“Hey, Mom, I don’t think I’m going to end up playing as much soccer as sissy does, ok?”

I was in the kitchen putting into the dishwasher one of the 972 cups my kids seem to use each week when I heard my 7-year-old’s voice. She had yelled out those words from the living room after doing what was probably her 529th back handspring of the day.

Her words made me pause mid-chore. Grabbing a towel to dry my hands, I called her out into the kitchen. When she made it to her seat at the kitchen island, I leaned across it and grabbed her hands.

“Now, what made you say that all of the sudden, honey?” I asked.

“I’m just saying,” she said confidently, “Sissy plays a lot of soccer, but my thing is probably gonna be gymnastics. So I just wanted you to know.”

While I stood there as mom, I suddenly also stood there with her as a fellow little sister — one who has spent her whole life being compared to her own older sister. Things like this were said to me all the time:

“Are you going to play that sport like your sister does?”
“Do you think you’ll be as tall as your sister?”
“Will you go to the same college your sister did?”

The truth was, there were a lot of ways I wanted to be just like my sister (and to this day, it’s a compliment to be compared to her.) But looking back, there were also moments when the outside comparisons — all made with no harm intended — had a bit of an impact on the way I built my identity.

I found myself trying to be more like her, instead of owning me.

I found myself considering certain life paths because she chose them, instead of walking on the one under my feet.

I found myself feeling like I had to justify why I was different than her to those who asked those “just like your sister” questions.

But I had parents and a sister who ALWAYS reminded me that I deserved to be my own “me” — and never encouraged me to be otherwise. And that support allowed ME to confidently walk in my own lane.

So for my daughter — as a kid who has been compared to her older sister since birth but is now expressing that she’s very much wanting to come into her own as a person — I knew I wanted to get my response right so she knew she was supported in that.

“Honey,” I said to her, “you don’t have to do anything like sissy does, if it isn’t something that brings YOU joy. I know you love so much about who sissy is … but you are your own person. And that’s not just OK. It’s amazing. If gymnastics is your thing, then gymnastics should be your thing. Mom and Dad want you to be you, just like they want sissy to be who sissy is.”

She said, “I do love sissy… I just don’t want to be EXACTLY like her.”

I laughed. “And that’s OK,” I told her. “You should be EXACTLY like you, instead.”

Within a millisecond she bolted off the stool. She called out a quick “OK, thanks mom!” while already upside down in the middle of the cartwheel that took her back into the living room.

Comparison. It happens to everyone.

For kids, it can start as early as birth when outsiders compare the baby to mom or dad or an older sibling. It keeps on rolling through toddler-dom, when adults compare a child to other kids on the street to assess how fast they’re crawling or walking or talking.

And any parent will admit they’ve compared their child to a sibling or to other kids — or even to themselves. We do it harmlessly, we know. But we’re not the only ones doing it. That’s why it’s so important that we also encourage each child to shine as they are — because we know that the world’s opinions of our children are only going to get louder.

Because my three kids? They’re 11, 9 and 7. So they’re all entering unique social spaces as they start to notice how they compare to the people around them. Tall or short. Sporty or trendy. Loud or quiet. Outgoing or shy.

And while they’re not quite at the social media stage yet, I know when that time comes the spotlight on comparison will be that much brighter. So though it’s impossible to shield them from a world trying to mold them into what society wants them to be, I know that NOW is the time to build them up.

I heard someone once say that one of the greatest things we can do to prepare our kids for the social media world is to build their self-esteem and empower them to own who they are INDEPENDENT of how they compare to someone else. That way, when the world comes at them with all its messages of “this is who you should be,” their walls of self-love are so strong that those limiting messages don’t have a chance of crossing through.

So that day, as I heard the familiar stomp of what would be my daughter’s 530th back handspring over the clang of the 923rd cup hitting the dishwater for the week, I re-committed something to myself: To balance out the thousand times my kids will be compared to someone in their life, I will make sure our home is a place where they never have to justify who they are.

Soccer player or gymnast.
Sporty or trendy.
Shy or outgoing.

They just get to be THEM… the way my parents (and my sister) allowed me to be no one else but me.