Children comparing themselves to others is a part of normal human behavior. But what can happen is they notice not just differences but that one person has “more” and one person has “less.” They start to see not having something as meaning they are not enough: good enough, intelligent enough, or even kind enough.
It’s easy to rush in and try to make our child feel better, but we can support our child’s emotional development by showing them they should only compare themselves to themselves.
Helping children self-compare allows them to notice their own growth and take ownership of their hard work. When they reach a goal, they know why — and when they don’t, they know to keep “failing forward.”
Here are three strategies to use to help your child build their self-comparison skills.
1. Avoid comparing your child to others
When you compare your child to others, it teaches them to look outward for their value. It shows them that they can “rank” themselves — they are either better or worse than someone else. The problem is that there is always going to be someone else who is bigger, faster, smarter, or better. Their goal shouldn’t be to “be the best” but “to be MY best.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky — a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of “The How of Happiness” — writes, "People who are happy use themselves for internal evaluation."
They recognize when someone is “better,” but they don't let it affect their self-esteem, staying focused on their own improvement. "A happy runner compares himself to his last run, not to others who are faster," she says.
And while we may think we never compare our children, it can come up in subtle ways: “Look, Daniel already has his shoes on.” You are telling the child they are less capable than Daniel. Comparing your child to others can also lead to poor self-esteem (Daniel is better than me) or damaged relationships because of envy (Daniel is better than me, so Mom loves him more).
Instead, meet your child where they are and show them they’re doing more than they could before. “I see that you got your shoes out and ready to go. That’s awesome. Let’s work on putting them on together.”
It’s also important to remember that positive comparisons are still comparisons, so you should avoid them. “You did such a great job sharing your toys today, even though some of your friends had a very hard time sharing.” Yes, you’re proud your child thought to share, but everyone grows at their own pace. That growth can be nonlinear too: growth today, a little backslide tomorrow. Plus, there will be situations where your child is the one who isn’t ready yet, or ready today.
To help foster the growth mindset, help your child turn inward and self-reflect on what they did and the outcome they achieved. “I saw you sharing your toys today. How did that feel?” It allows your child to build the connection between their actions and their feelings and their results.
The Big Life Journal - 2nd Edition is a wonderful introduction to growth mindset and helps children develop strong Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and growth mindset skills through inspiring stories, colorful illustrations, and engaging guided activities.
2. Celebrate their progress rather than the end result
When you’re helping your child foster their growth mindset, you want to focus on their progress — not necessarily the result. It doesn’t matter what place they earned in the race, but that they improved their own time or “gave it their all.”
Emphasizing the idea of doing their best — regardless of the outcome — reinforces the idea that they are their own competition. It doesn’t matter if someone else is faster or better. It is their effort and determination that is important. Building a growth mindset means we focus on building our skills and getting better than we were. Our personal growth and learning is always about us, and no one else. “You might not be the best in class and that’s okay. The important thing is that you are better than you were last time — and you keep trying and are working hard.”
You can ask your child what they are doing to get better. “How does it feel knowing your practice is helping you improve?
3. Teach them how to set and track personal goals
According to Psychologist Leslie Riopel, MSc, when you help your child set and focus on their goals, it leads to three main behaviors: creating new behaviors, building focus, and developing momentum.
Creating new behaviors to meet a goal allows children to see what they need to do to reach their desired outcome at the end. Your child needs to be able to see the difference between where they are (without judgment) and where they want to be. A strong, focused goal can help them change their behavior to meet that goal.
Support your child by asking, “What habits do you need to build and practice to reach your goal? What does the person who you admire do every day that you can do every day?”
Focusing on a goal helps your child build momentum toward the goal. They internalize the work they’ve put in. One small success gives the push to reach for another, and so on and so on.
To help your child recognize the momentum, you can ask, “How does it feel to make progress toward your goal?”
When your child makes progress, recognize it, no matter how small. Even a few small steps can mean reaching new abilities. Allow your child to relish the little wins. Creating a sticker chart or daily tracking chart can help give them the visual reminder that they are working hard.
Personal reflection can be a strong tool, too. You can ask, “What gymnastic moves were you working on last year? What are you working on now? How have you grown as a gymnast?” By helping your child track the progress they’ve already made, you help them see that their goal is reachable, even if it still feels a long way off.
You can help your child build their progress by asking, “What is the one thing you can work on right now that will help you reach your goal?”
Another way to support your child in their goal focus is to help them reframe their thinking. When they are struggling and say, “I can’t do it,” adding a simple “yet” to the end of the phrase changes its entire meaning. The gentle reminder that each time they try, they are moving closer to their goal sends a powerful message.
Supporting our children’s progress and goals to develop their internal comparison and ability to work for progress is a key factor in helping them establish a growth mindset.