Many parents have compared one child’s academic accomplishments or classroom behavior to another’s, either as incentives to elicit good behavior or as warnings to curb bad behavior. But showcasing one child’s success as an example for others can easily backfire. For example, talking to one child about a sibling’s accomplishments can imply that child is not good enough or that you love the other sibling more. It can also inadvertently put pressure on the exemplary sibling to continue performing at high levels rather than simply do their best—regardless of the results that effort generates. At times we all find ourselves playing the comparison game with our kids (it starts when they’re still in the womb, as we compare how big they get or where they sit in the belly), but once they reach school age, we should work hard to resist comparison speech. Try one or more of these seven strategies to give all of your children the best chance possible:
1. Consider the child’s personality. For some kids, schoolwork comes easily; others struggle to complete homework or take tests. Rather than compare one sibling to another, practice reminding yourself and your children that each one is their own person with their own strengths and weaknesses. Affirm for them that it’s okay to be skilled and gifted differently from each other.
2. Be specific. Whether praising or correcting, it’s more helpful for a child to hear concrete words rather than generalities. For example, instead of saying, “Oh, I see you got a B on the same project your sister got an A on,” try this instead: “You must have studied hard for that test.”
3. Keep it private. It’s difficult not to compare progress when more than one child goes to the same school, takes the same music lessons, or plays on the same sports team. One way to avoid comparisons is to look at progress reports, teacher or coach evaluations, and grades privately with each child. Keep discussions of any sensitive topics—such as struggles at school, trouble with teammates, or misbehavior—out of earshot of your other children. These should be closed-door conversations, not dinner-table topics.
4. Don’t force sharing. Remind your kids that they don’t have to share results, test scores, or report cards with their siblings. If you see one sibling trying to push another to reveal such information, remind both of them that it’s okay for some things to stay private.
5. Remind their teachers. Many families have stair-step-aged children or live in one area long enough to send all their kids through the same schools, often resulting in dealing with the same teacher more than once. Teachers can sometimes fuel sibling rivalry unintentionally by comparing former students to their younger siblings in order to communicate hopes or expectations. Take a proactive approach with your repeat teachers by meeting with them early and emphasizing your children’s positive differences from each other.
6. Enforce boundaries. Parents often need to help older siblings respect boundaries when it comes to their younger sisters or brothers. Remind older siblings not to brag about how easy a younger child’s homework is, and not to interrupt or dismiss a conversation when a younger one shares about something the other siblings have already experienced.
7. Love the same but different. This one is key to keeping harmony in the home and in helping us view our children as individuals. We all love our children because they are ours, but we also love different things about each one. It is important to emphasize to each of your children repeatedly what you love specifically about them so that, when they hear you praising one child, they don’t immediately start comparing themselves to that sibling. If you have reinforced each of your children’s positive qualities often enough, they will be able to self-soothe when they start feeling envious by reminding themselves of what you have praised them for in the past.
As you practice avoiding comparisons between your children this academic year, and focus instead on each child as an individual, you’ll find more often than not that your relationships with them will improve, and their relationships with each other will also benefit.