Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why aren't you like your brother? Comparing your child to others

“I don’t like it,” said my nine-year old son, looking into the mirror.

He was referring to his new hairstyle that I crafted for “Crazy Hat and Hair Day” at school today.  It was a spiked up, high volume, super hair-sprayed, absolute work of art (if I may say so myself).

“What do you mean you don’t like it,” I replied, flummoxed by his less than enthusiasm over my skill at styling hair.  I had just spent nearly ten minutes trying to get his hair to stand straight up.

“Can I wear a crazy hat instead,” he said morosely, still staring at his reflection.

And then I committed a horrible parenting mistake, I said, “Your brother likes his crazy hair!  Why don’t you?”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I thought… oh no, that was the wrong thing to say.  This son was a shy, conservative child who was happiest in front of a computer or working on puzzles.  His brother on the other hand was an outgoing, jokester, who loved attention and being active.  As I reflect back on the moment, I wasn’t surprised by his resistance to looking like a crazed cartoon character… I think I was just disappointed that he wouldn’t try it.

We all know that kids are different.  Siblings are different.  Personalities, temperments, athletic ability, academic achievements… all different.

So, why do we compare them?  

It’s human nature to compare.  We get through much of our lives checking to see if we are doing the “right” thing by comparing to what we decide is the norm or the goal.  We choose what is valuable to us and then compare our behaviors or abilities to see how we are doing towards reaching those values.

In this competitive society, we are exposed to a culture of comparing to see who is smartest, most achieved, has the most money, looks the nicest, wears the best clothes, runs the fastest, and so on.  It is hard to resist the tendency to compare. It’s natural to look at your child and see how he/she does compared to siblings, friends, and children who you’ve never met that you saw on the playground!

The good news is that the world needs all types of people, and that there is no one thing that predicts success or happiness.  It is important to dentify your child’s strengths and help them develop these strengths to their fullest potential.  If your child has a weakness that worries you, try to put yourself in their shoes and think of a solution that would make them feel confident and be successful in small steps.

One mom told me that she was worried about her three-year old daughter who was terribly shy and would not participate in group activities.  This was her second child, and her first one loved to be the star of the show.  This child seemed so different and she was worried that there was something wrong with her child.  “Could she be autistic?  Or does she have an anxiety problem?” she asked me.

She had put her daughter in music class, gymnastics classes, and similar programs, thinking that with more exposure her child would get more comfortable with being in large groups.  She was frustrated because her daughter would either just stand off to the side, or cry until they had to leave.   She was worried that her child would be a social outcast forever.  

During the office visit, initially the child hid behind her mother refusing to come out to be examined.  By coaxing her out with the crayons and paper, I was able to get her to start talking to me as she learned that I was not going to do anything scary.  By the end of our twenty minutes together, she was happily coloring on the paper, telling me about her drawings.  She made eye contact and communicated appropriately for her age.  It appeared to me that she was a child who was shy, very cautious, and needed time to acclimate to something new.

I recommended to mom that she should start with a setting that her daughter would be comfortable with, such as a playdate with one child in her home.  Then, once her child was comfortable with that, she should include more children in the playdates.  The next step would be to go to an unfamiliar place with these friends so that her child would have people she knew to play with.  It was also important to recognize that her daughter was still very young, and that likely as she grew older, her child would gain more confidence. 

The mother happily reported a year later that by introducing her to others in a smaller, safer, familiar environment, her daughter now had several little friends and was comfortable going out with them.  “She even went to a birthday party and led her friends to the moonbounce!” mom exclaimed proudly.  “She still will sit on the side if she is really nervous, but usually she will try it after watching for a bit.  I think she’s just a perfectionist and wants to make sure that she can do it right before showing anyone else.  She’s a lot like me!”

Find your child’s strengths, and focus on their abilities and unique qualities.  This will go a long way towards building self-esteem and confidence… this is likely to be more important than being the first child to know how to read in preschool, being the best at catching a football, or having the craziest hair on Crazy Hair Day at school!

Thanks for reading!


  1. I think the advice you gave to the mother is great. Ever since I was younger I have been shy and have some social anxiety. I wish my parents would have done this with me, slowly introduce play dates, and things such as that. Instead I mostly was forced to go out and have a sleep over at someone's house which just made me more nervous and resistant.

  2. Thank you for your great comment! My youngest son is incredibly shy (even more than my second son who I described in the blog) and we have learned a lot from him. It's nice to hear the perspective from an adult who has been through it.