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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Social Comparison: Is It Effective? (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

    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.    

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Everyone Can’t be No. 1 (Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

    I cringe every time I hear a parent encouraging their child to be the number one in whatever.  I have seen parents get very upset because their five year old child could not score the winning goal in soccer.  I have seen parents encourage their child to be the first one done when eating with peers.  Or how about the child whose parents have decided that their five year old will be the number one student in his kindergarten class?  How about the parents who have decided that their child will be a doctor, an engineer, or scientist when they grow up?  The examples go on and on.  These examples illustrate how we, as parents, program our kids very early on to believe that we should settle for nothing less than being number one. 

    It is very true that we live in a very competitive world and we need to prepare our children for it.  What makes it worse is that today our world no longer consists only of the people in our microcosm.  It literally includes the whole world with the availability of technology and being a global market.  So, it is very natural for parents to feel anxious about how their child will compete in this global, competitive world.  The problem is that it is risky business when parents put this kind of pressure on their children day in and day out. 

    At first, this kind of pressure doesn’t seem to be a problem because when children are very young they want to please their parents, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles…basically any adult who plays a significant role in their lives.  Therefore, young children happily go along with their parents’ plans until they start thinking for themselves.  For some, this independent thinking happens early on and for others it doesn’t happen until adulthood.  Yet for some, it never happens. This is most worrisome. 

    I see this kind of pressure as risky business because the costs are high for our children.  One of three outcomes will occur for children.  Outcome 1 is that both the parents and the child’s wishes match and everyone is happy. This result is probably less likely than one would hope.  Outcome 2 is that the child will reject the parents’ wishes and pursue their own dreams. Rifts may occur in the family, but ultimately the parents get over it and the child is happy. This is healthy. Outcome 3 is that the child goes along with their parents’ wishes when they do not want to from the bottom of their hearts, but they do not communicate this to their parents in fear of disappointing them.  This is probably more common than one would think.  I know I have observed this quite a bit in my own Nepalese culture where parents are revered and children constantly try to meet their expectations even though they really do not want to. 

  The costs of Outcome 3 can range anywhere from feeling anxious over the smallest things in life to severe depression leading to suicide.  Little bit of anxiety can actually be healthy. For instance, getting anxious over an upcoming Math test and studying for it is a good thing. However, unhealthy anxiety can have the opposite effect of what parents want for their child.  When children feel that pressure that they have to excel in order to gain approval then their self-esteem and confidence are compromised.  They will constantly compare themselves to others as a way of measuring their self-worth. This is not healthy. A perfectly competent person can do very poorly under this kind of pressure.  Over time, this anxiety can lead to depression and take a major hit on their self-worth.  Professional help is warranted at this time.   

   So, what should well-meaning parents do to avoid the risks? The answer is pretty simple, but harder to balance. Parents need to relieve this pressure and instead encourage their child to do their best rather than being the best.  I am not suggesting that parents encourage mediocrity rather that they encourage their child to reach his or her own potential wherever that may be for that child.  When the pressure is lifted, children will be at ease, perform better, and be happier. Less pressure equals better product.