This piece is a follow-up to the last blog post: “Everyone Can’t Be No. 1.”
It seems as though parents are wired to make social comparison when it comes to their children. In fact, do we not cultivate this process when the babies are in the womb by comparing one pregnancy to the next? Later on, it becomes how one child is doing academically and/or behaviorally versus another. More importantly, what impact does this have on our children? Let’s take a quick look at the history of social comparison theory to better understand what is involved in the process. As always, once we begin to understand ourselves better, only then do we begin to understand others. In this case, others happen to be our precious kids!
Leon Festinger coined the term “social comparison” in 1954, which states that people tend to evaluate themselves, including their opinions and desires, by comparing themselves to others. The process includes two types of social comparison: upward and downward. Upward social comparison occurs when someone compares themselves to someone who is better off (intellectually, financially, physically, etc.) in an effort to be part of the elite and have a more positive view of themselves.
In contrast, downward social comparison is when you compare yourself to someone who is worse off than you to make yourself feel happier. For example, a diabetic patient who only needs medication for treatment may see himself better off than another diabetic patient who has lost vision due to diabetes. The result of this downward social comparison makes one happier. This process seems pretty natural and harmless right?
Now consider this. A parent continually resorts to upward social comparison as a way to motivate their child to do better (academics, sports, arts, etc.). This comparison occurs very often between siblings, other relatives, and peers. A crude example may sound something like this: “John is always getting straight A’s. Why can’t you be more like him?” A sneakier example may go like this: “Mary is so talented. She is going to be somebody very important.” The parent says such things to the child who they are trying to motivate into doing better. Although this appears to be a fairly, common parenting tactic, it can be counterproductive. The child on the receiving end of this message is hearing that he or she is not good enough for their parents’ approval. Over time, this will likely result in an inferiority complex and self-esteem issues. This is an emotionally painful experience for any child to go through and it can be easily avoided.
Conversely, when parents practice downward social comparison as a strategy to make a child feel better, it can result in illusory superiority complex. The child goes on to believe that they are better than the next person. As a therapist in the schools, I often heard parents say to their child: “Those kids are being mean to you because they are jealous of you.” Instead of addressing what the real issue may be (e.g. bullying), the parent could be reinforcing many unhealthy behaviors (e.g. not taking responsibility).
I am reminded of this one case when I worked as a therapist in the schools. There was a 10 year old girl who was regarded by her parents and other relatives as an “iconoclast” (family member’s own word) and that’s why her peers have been picking on her. When in reality this girl was the source of many nasty rumors that started in the 5th grade. Because this girl would constantly hear that others were jealous of her and that’s why she gets trapped in the rumor mill, this girl really felt she was superior than her peers and above the school regulations. Blaming others became second nature to her than taking responsibility. She started out as a very popular girl at the beginning of the year, but her social circle shrunk by the end of the year. She actually engaged in very harmful behaviors to gain attention. You can see from this example how human relations can be negatively impacted when people feel they are superior to others.
Actually, both upward and downward social comparisons affect human relations negatively, but in different ways. The take home message is for parents not to engage in social comparisons as a means of motivating their children. The kids do not like it when parents make comparisons and it is not effective in getting them to do what you want them to do. In fact, for many families, it does the opposite. It is called rebellion. Children will engage in social comparisons on their own naturally and parents should discourage this rather than add fuel to the fire.