Let them run their own race: Why we need to stop comparing our kids to others

By ParentTV on 1 Dec 2020
Categories: General Parenting

Have you heard the expression ‘comparison is the thief of joy?’

How about ‘the grass is always greener on the other side?’

We’ve got a new one for you: ‘People who give unsolicited comments about your kids and their progress or development are jerks.’ Okay, it’s not quite as pithy as the other ones, but it’s true! How your kids are developing or progressing is nobody else’s business and measuring the worth of any child by some one-size-fits-all yardstick of accomplishment is ridiculous. Can you tell this one gets us a bit hot under the collar? It’s because it’s just around the corner. ‘Tis the season to be judgemental, it seems…

Whether it’s at the end-of-year work party, the annual extended family barbecue or  neighbourhood Christmas drinks, these commenters will be there, lying in wait. They always start with niceties then go in for the kill. ‘Little Charlie is so cute! He’s a bit clumsy with the ball for his age though, isn’t he? I’m sure he’s excelling academically, though…Oh, he’s not reading, yet? Well, there’s still time, I suppose. I’ve heard of a wonderful tutoring company, I’ll give you their details. We’ve never needed them, the twins are reading in Russian now because they got bored of English, but that’s just them! Incorrigible.’ Then, they pat your arm and walk away. You stand and watch your kids wheeling around the backyard with shoes on their hands and straws sticking out of their mouths like walrus tusks, high on sugar and holiday freedom, loving being silly and having fun and just being KIDS and suddenly you feel like they’re not okay. They’re not enough. You’re not enough, by extension. Your genes are flawed, you don’t push them hard enough, you’ve praised them too much, you’ve failed as a parent. They’re not as they should be in appearance or skills or talent or abilities, they are lacking somehow. They’ll be left behind forever, always running to catch up with the pack. You must bring them up to scratch, immediately.

You know it’s illogical, but comparing your children to others as they grow and learn is hard to avoid. Humans are pack animals, designed to view ourselves as one of a species, so it’s inevitable that we make these evaluations. But, it isn’t fair. It’s not fair on our kids, ourselves or the other kids we’re comparing them to. It completely misses the point, too, which is that childhood is a unique journey for every child. It has to be, because every child is unique, yes? 

So, how about we stop? How about we stop listening to other people who don’t see the magic in our kids and stop comparing them to other kids who are running an entirely different race? How about we stop talking about weaknesses or deficiencies and instead talk about how excellent and varied humans and their brains are? 

We reckon that would make for a merrier Christmas. Here’s how to do it:

Focus on your child’s potential

Rather than focussing on what kids can or can’t do right now, focussing on their potential shows them that they are inherently worthy, regardless of what they accomplish, says ParentTV expert, Maggie Dent. In an earlier blog on confidence, we included a quote from Maggie that’s so on point that we’re going to repeat it.

There’s one little magic word that can really help sensitive kids who struggle with confidence: yet. When they say they can’t do something, remind them that they just can’t do it yet, and you can help them practice until they can do it.

Maggie Dent

Who your kids are is not written in stone. What they can do, what they have learned and what strengths and abilities they possess is a work in progress, because they’re a work in progress. What they need from us as parents is support, encouragement and a reminder that they’re still growing, changing and evolving. Their possibilities are endless, and we should tell them so.

Be positive about their ability to learn

In his video Why your child needs a positive disposition to themselves as a learner, ParentTV expert and neuroscience communicator, Nathan Wallis, says that we’ve got things all wrong when it comes to little kids and what we focus on. Rather than concentrating on teaching them their colours or letters or shapes, we need to teach them that they have a great capacity for learning and they will find things they are good at, in their time and in their way. ‘The literature tells us that when a child is under seven, we need to focus not on literacy and numeracy, but on their disposition towards themselves as a learner,’ Nathan says.

When your child is under seven, it doesn’t matter how clever they are. It matters how clever they feel.

Nathan Wallis

Want proof? Well, it’s all in the data, Nathan says. ‘Learning plateaus at the age of eight, on average. What that means is that a child who started on literacy at the age of four has the same reading age as a child who didn’t start reading until they were seven. A child who’s been in a free play environment under the age of seven is not only more likely to have a degree by the age of 32, they’re less likely to have been incarcerated.’ There it is.

Encourage a growth mindset

ParentTV expert and psychologist, Dr Justin Coulson, says that people with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is limited and cannot be altered but those with a growth mindset believe that their brain is like a muscle, and the more they exercise it, the stronger it will be. ‘Research now confirms that both those things are actually true,’ says Dr Coulson.

If you believe you cannot change your brain or skills or how you operate, you won’t. But, if you have a growth mindset, you will keep on trying. You’ll discover the value of tenacity, grit, persistence and effort and you will keep going until you can do whatever you’re working at.

Dr Justin Coulson

When kids have a growth mindset, they understand that they need to practice to get better at something. They attempt things, even if they’re not sure whether they’ll be any good, which is exactly what we need them to do. If they never attempt, they will never do those things, and they’ll also miss out on the learning in the experience of trying, whatever happens. ‘A fixed mindset is about performance and minimising effort, because you don’t want to look like you need to try,’ Dr Coulson says. ‘School is often about measuring ability and the appearance of competence, rather than the specifics of the task itself or giving kids genuine feelings of mastery. We need to change this and give more applause for experimentation and exploration, not just results.’ Hear, hear!

Change the teaching not the learner

‘Humans come in all shapes and sizes and one of the things that makes us unique is how our brains take in information,’ says Dr Vanessa Lapointe, ParentTV expert and psychologist. ‘How we learn is also unique. Some kids learn differently and may be diagnosed with learning disabilities, but I prefer the term ‘learning exceptionality’.’ The idea that someone who learns differently to standard classroom methods of delivery is less smart than their counterparts is a pervasive one and it’s actually based on a falsehood, says Dr Lapointe. Someone with a learning disability actually has to have average or above average IQ, but barriers to their learning have prevented this from being reflected in their results.

So, our job as adults is to adjust the way we teach these kids to align with the way they learn and their intelligence. We need to acknowledge that some of our biggest thinkers and innovators and creators have learning disabilities (or exceptionalities) and have contributed to our society immensely.

Dr Vanessa Lapointe

If we change the way we teach so we’re offering equitable opportunities for different kids to learn, each of them can excel in their own way. Imagine that!

Understand that there is no normal

‘Every parent simultaneously believes their child is a genius and is worried their child is somehow ‘behind’ says ParentTV expert and teacher, Teacher Tom. ‘But that’s actually a meaningless term, in my business. At my school, the parents work in the classroom with the kids. This gives them the chance to see that yes, their child is a genius. But, so are all the others. And maybe, yes, their child is ‘behind’ in some areas. But so are all the others.’

These parents see how wide the range of normal actually is, Teacher Tom says, and how meaningless the word becomes as a result.

Now, we just need to round up all those commenters at our Christmas parties, pin them down and make them read this article. Or, just give everyone ParentTV subscriptions for Christmas! Easy done.