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Let’s Talk: Is comparing our kids a good idea?

By Lisa Twang, May 18, 2020

Since I joined the mum tribe, I’ve often compared myself ⁠— and my daughter ⁠Tully — to other mums and their kids. Whether it’s breastfeeding, introducing solids or teaching my little girl to read, I look at my peers to see if we’re measuring up. 

While comparisons are also made between older and younger siblings (“why can’t you be more like your sister?”), this story isn’t about sibling comparisons. Instead, I wanted to know why mothers feel the need to compare their kids with those of their friends and extended family. 

I’m of two minds when it comes to comparing. On one hand, it’s really useful to compare Tully with other kids, so I can celebrate her strengths and take note of her weaknesses. But if I’m not careful, these comparisons can also fuel competition between me and mums, to see whose kids are ‘winning’. And comparison can be dangerous if it makes kids feel unhappy, or stressed out over having to keep up with other children.

Why do we compare our kids in the first place? And what does it do to mothers, and children? Can we really stop comparing, and accept our kids for who they are?

* * * *

Growing up, it seemed like my parents were constantly comparing me with other girls my age. “Your cousin is taking her diploma in piano, and you’re still in Grade 4. Why can’t you be more like her?” they’d ask.

It annoyed me, and I kept thinking: “Why can’t my parents just accept me for who I am? Aren’t I good enough for them?”

This burning desire to be my own person, independent of what others are doing, has had a deep influence on my parenting style. I vowed to love and accept my own kid for who she was, and never compare her with others. In my mind, I’d blissfully ignore what other parents and their kids were doing, and adore my child for the perfect angel she was. 

It turns out I was a little naive, because now that I’m a parent, I’ve realised it’s damn near impossible to never compare your children with others. It’s our way of benchmarking our kids, to make sure they’re growing and developing at a healthy rate. 

If they’re falling behind or lacking in certain areas, we want to know sooner rather than later. And an easy way to check on that is to see if they’re doing okay compared to their peers. 

I also know how thrilling it is to compare Tully with her peers and have her come out on top. It makes me feel proud of her, and assures me that I’ve done a good job as a parent. 

Tully has always been good at talking; during her first month, she started verbalising some vowel sounds, and called me “Mama” before she was one. At four, she now talks a mile a minute and can use big words like ‘apex predator’. Friends and relatives are often impressed by this, and it gives me great joy when I’m told she’s “so clever and mature.” 

I feel like Tully’s achievements are partially mine as well. A compliment for her is a compliment for me, because it implies I’ve done well as her mother. However, the flip side of this is that when Tully does poorly compared to other kids, I feel responsible too.

In her group swimming class, she’s behind her peers because she has a fear of water getting in her face. She can’t dip her face in the water, or jump into the pool, without crying. This worries my husband and I sometimes: we watch other children her age swimming like fishes, while Tully clings to us like a lamprey and refuses to wet her face.

It’s okay if Tully doesn’t enjoy swimming, but my fear is that she might drown someday because she never learned how. If I haven’t equipped her with survival skills, I’ll feel like I’ve not done my job right as a parent. Her failure to overcome her fear of water also makes me worry that she’s not resilient by nature, and may give up too easily. I don’t want her to go through life being afraid of new experiences, and I hope she can be more bold and adventurous.

But I constantly remind myself to be patient with Tully about her shortcomings, and to let her learn at her own pace. Rather than focus on what she can’t do, it’s my job to teach her as best as I can, and not worry about how other kids may be doing better. 

Comparing kids can cause a lot of stress for mums, especially if they’re already insecure about how well they’re doing. 

A study called the ‘iMom Project’ by Brigham Young University in the US found that making social comparisons about their kids on social media made mums feel less competent and supported, and more overloaded and depressed. The more frequently mums compared, the worse they felt, which could lead to mum guilt and maternal depression.

“When making social comparisons online, mothers may get the impression that they simply do not measure up as a parent,” the study said. “They may wonder why parenting is so easy for others, when it feels so difficult to them.”

I’ve seen how making negative comparisons between kids can hurt mums’ self-esteem, and can make them feel like they’re losing the parenting competition.

My friend Jamie used to be a stay-at-home mum, and posted photos and updates of her three kids on Facebook a few times a day. For her, Facebook posts were a way of chronicling her day with her kids, and how they were developing. But she’d often get unsolicited comments from other mums about what her kids were doing. 

“They’d ask: ‘Why can’t your oldest daughter feed herself yet?’ ‘Why is your middle child still wearing diapers?’ Their underlying message was: ‘My kids are ahead of yours, because I’m better at parenting them than you.’

“At first I was upset, and sometimes, I got angry and felt like I was being judged. I’d ask myself if I was really doing the right thing with my kids. But over time, I’ve learned to ignore these comments because I trust that I’m raising my kids right. If I’m upset by these comparisons, I talk to my husband and close friends, who remind me that I’m doing a good job with my kids. 

“I tell myself I can’t control others’ thoughts, and that I will take care of my kids the way I feel works best. There’s no need to let people’s offhand comments get to me just because they’re trying to play the comparison game.”

Making comparisons can be a slippery slope. If I’m always comparing Tully to the brightest, most talented kids I know, she’s going to come up short all the time.

Like many parents, I do wonder sometimes how I’ll react if Tully isn’t the academic type, and doesn’t do well in school. I don’t need her to be the first in her class, but what if she’s last? I don’t think I’m such a chilled-out mum that I won’t freak out if she’s consistently behind in school, or fails her exams.

If my friends’ kids do much better than Tully in school, will it make me anxious, and will I pass on that anxiety and stress to Tully? I feel like I need to walk the line between supporting her in her weak areas, and accepting at some level that she may not be naturally skilled in certain subjects. 

To be honest, I’m still learning how to strike this balance. Tully’s Mandarin is weaker than her English now, which worries me sometimes because I feel like she’ll fall behind compared to her playgroup classmates. I’m doing my best to teach her, but when she forgets the word for the colour ‘orange’ time and again, it can make me feel really frustrated. 

It’s tempting to feel like her Mandarin is just hopeless and will always be, but I tell myself to help her improve a little every day. Maybe she won’t be spouting Tang poetry anytime soon, but someday, she’ll finally remember that orange is ‘cheng se’, and I’ll celebrate that little win, and hopefully the others that follow.

I remember how my parents lost touch with a couple of family friends, because those friends were embarrassed that their son hadn’t done as well in school compared to other kids in their social circle. Their son struggled through secondary school and university, and his parents slowly withdrew from their group of friends so they wouldn’t have to talk about their son’s shortcomings. I think they felt they’d ‘lost face’, and they didn’t want to be reminded of how other friends’ kids were thriving while their son was still finding his way.

It’s an extreme case, but I don’t ever want to reach that point where I’ve ranked Tully at the bottom compared to my friends’ kids. She’s my daughter, and I love her no matter what. Even if she’s shitty at academics, I want to help her without making her feel bad about herself.

I think comparing children excessively can also hurt kids, because they sense their parents’ disappointment and feel like they’re not good enough.

I carried emotional scars during my childhood and teens because at times, I felt like I wasn’t good enough for my parents. By asking why I wasn’t as accomplished as other kids, I felt like they were questioning my worth as a person. While I’m sure my parents didn’t mean to, their comparisons hurt my self-esteem, and it took time for me to ignore the comparisons and focus on what I wanted to do with my own life. 

Instead of worrying about what others were doing, I worked on my two life goals: becoming a writer, and learning to play the piano well enough to perform in church. I’ve managed to achieve both these goals by spending more time developing my skills, rather than thinking about what others had which I lacked, like perfect grades in maths and science.

I won’t ignore Tully’s weaknesses, but I do want to focus on her strengths. I think if she does well in the things that matter to her in life, it’ll be a tremendous confidence booster. I’ll always be her cheerleader, and encourage her to put effort into developing her natural gifts.

The last thing I want is for my daughter to feel overwhelmed by the pressure to keep up with other kids, because that can only lead to unhappiness.

I think a little healthy competition between children can be a good way to encourage them to do their best. It spurs them on, and keeps them on their toes. But I’m also aware that kids are already under lots of pressure to perform in school, and the weight of their parents’ expectations can add to that emotional burden. 

Kids can end up moody and depressed if they feel like they’re being compared unfavourably with other kids, and I don’t wish to see my own child fall victim to this. I want Tully to grow up happy and secure in herself, knowing that I love her whether she succeeds or fails in whatever she does. If she’s giving her all and putting in her best effort, that’s good enough for me.

I’ve realised it’s possible to still watch other people’s children grow up, without comparing them excessively with your own.

Recently I spoke to Tammy Hitchens, a mum of 14, who shared how she built her confidence as a mum by opting out of the parenting ‘rat race’ altogether. “Parenting isn’t a competition: I don’t compare myself to other mums, and feel superior or inferior to them,” she said. “We’re all just doing the best we can.” 

Time has taught me to be more thick-skinned when other mums compare their kids with mine. I can hold my head high and confidently say that I know I’m doing a good job. I’ve given myself permission to fail, and correct things through trial and error. 

Instead of joining the unspoken parenting competition, I’m choosing to compare and contrast Tully with other children in ways that will benefit her and our family. I hope we mums can keep helping one another to bring out the best in our children, so they can grow into confident, amazing adults. 

Comparing Tully with other children all the time might mean that I miss out on who she really is. I want to treasure the kid I have, not try to turn her into the kid I wish I had. 

Tully is afraid to ride a bike, but if I just focused on how she can’t cycle or swim, I’d forget how good she is at telling me stories and putting on dance performances for the family. I’d be closing my eyes to the wonderful daughter I have, who’s cheerful, witty and full of empathy.

She’s her own unique person, who’s gifted in some areas but slower to develop in others, and that’s perfectly fine. 

I’ve learned to celebrate Tully’s growth, and that of my friends’ children as well. I think we can all afford to be a little kinder to ourselves, and our fellow mums. If we can learn to put down our yardsticks and love our kids for who they are, I think we’d all be happier parents. 

These days, my parents no longer compare me with their friends’ kids. I’m not sure when the shift happened, but perhaps when I grew into an adult and started my own career and a family, they realised how happy and fulfilled I was. 

If they mention their friends’ kids, or my cousins, it’s to update me on what’s going on in their lives. There’s no hint that they wish I was like those other kids, and I feel like that old burden has been lifted from me.

My parents have told me they’re proud of how I’ve turned out, and my mum said I’m doing a great job as a mother (though let’s be real, she still criticises my way of parenting sometimes!). I can’t change my past, but I know I can change Tully’s future, and make her feel like I love her best just for being herself. 

This is the third and final story in our Mother's Day series.

The first story in the series about a mother of 14 can be read here: https://dayre.me/story/4c061ce288

The second story in the series about a respite carer and a biological mother can be read here: https://dayre.me/story/e0be020780

 

Writer’s Note:

My name is Lisa, and you can find me on @lisatwang on the Dayre app. I’ve written about my proud mummy moments, like teaching Tully to help clean the kitty litter, and my parenting fears, like how I fear that her Mandarin isn’t up to scratch. 

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