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SALT LAKE CITY — A rule of life we learn early is only one person can win at a time. Do the rest of us walk around with the word "loser" printed on our forehead? Do you sometimes catch yourself looking in the mirror just to check?
Author Henri Nouwen wrote, "In a world that constantly compares people, ranking them as more or less intelligent, more or less attractive, more or less successful, it is not easy to really believe in a [divine] love that does not do the same."
"When I hear someone praised," Nouwen continued, "it is hard not to think of myself as less praiseworthy; when I read about the goodness and kindness of other people, it is hard not to wonder whether I myself am as good and kind as they; and when I see trophies, rewards, and prizes being handed out to special people, I cannot avoid asking myself why that didn't happen to me."
In parenting, we should avoid harmful comparisons of ourselves to other parents, our family to other families, and a child to another sibling. I'll cover these three points and suggest two antidotes for poisonous comparisons.
Do not compare yourself with another parent.
"She probably hires a housekeeper. There is no way she can do it with three young boys. My house would be that clean if I had money to pay someone."
Speaking of housekeeping, I'm reminded of the saying by George Bernard Shaw: "Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world." Petty comparisons dirty the window to our soul and obscure our view of others.
One reason we struggle with insecurity: we're comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else's highlight reel.
–Steve Furtick, author
We usually compare a rival parent's best side to our worst. In doing so, we subject ourselves to suffer by comparison and suffer with feelings of self-doubt, depression and discouragement.
Author Steve Furtick said it this way: "One reason we struggle with insecurity: we're comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else's highlight reel."
When we put ourselves against another parent, not only do we shrink in character, but also children who follow our example. They learn to respond as we do: turn green-eyed and stab another's back, or wring our hands and heave sighs of discouragement.
Do not compare your family to another.
"I'm not going to let the Smiths outdo us this year in Christmas light decorations. They made us look like the neighborhood schmucks last December."
Kari Kubiszyn Kampakis at the Huffington Post said: "Every parent has a competitive streak. All it takes to stir this monster in us is another parent giving his or her child a leg up at our child's expense.
I hear these stories a lot at the junior high and high school levels, stories of broken friendships and betrayals due to one family blindsiding another family. In my opinion, the root is fear.
We fear our children will get left behind. We fear that if we don't jump into the craziness, and pull out every stop to help them excel early, they'll be stuck in mediocrity the rest of their life.
I believe children need to work hard and understand that dreams don't come on a silver platter; they have to sweat and fight for them. But when we instill a "win at all costs" attitude, permitting them to throw anyone under the bus to get ahead, we lose sight of character.
Every family has different resources, strengths, weaknesses, traditions, lifestyle, and priorities. I have a neighbor whose children are extremely intelligent and high achievers. Their family spends enormous amounts of time in academic arenas. Their second son, who didn't even study for the ACT, got a perfect score. Another family raises incredible athletes.
All the while, we keep in mind that our family has differing, specific skills sets and interests. Not that I don't want my children to do well in school or sports, but I am realistic knowing that our family cannot be a conglomeration of superhuman skills.
While all families have apparent strengths, each has their weaknesses, fitting us all into a "whole" community of families. When our village steps in to raise our children, every family's strength contributes to that holistic approach to parenting. I can't do it alone. I am grateful for every neighbor, extended family member and friend.
Do not compare a sibling to another child.
"Why is your room always such a mess? Your brother's side of the room is perfect and yours looks like a bomb went off."
This is the tricky one. It only takes about three seconds after birth to realize our children come with their own personalities, temperaments and preferences. They are each so different. Why would we want to dilute their individuality?
Saying phrases such as, "Your brother would never have done that," or, "I wish you studied like your sister," sets up a child for resentment, failure and to be in competition with another sibling. The child will likely perceive you don't love her as much as the "perfect" sibling.
A better approach is to compete only against herself. What are her strengths and weaknesses? Where does she want to improve? How is she better than she was last year? Last month?
If you succumb easily to comparing yourself to another parent, another family or comparing a child to a sibling, I would like to suggest two antidotes.
- Antidote No. 1Move from competition to cooperation. One of the best ways I know to avoid excessive competition is to foster joy in one another's achievements. A sibling who wins or a friend who makes the team does not diminish the other child's happiness when they celebrate together. In fact, the joy multiplies and spills over on both. Let your kids hear you say aloud when someone else is successful, "I am so happy for him/her." Encourage your child to make a congratulations poster, send a card or take the other person out. Take siblings to their brother's or sister's activities to cheer for each other. That spirit of cooperation lets us all feel like winners.
- Antidote No. 2Move from comparison to connection. We connect when we serve another who is less fortunate. We find we have something to offer another that we can uniquely give. Those who are lacking show us where we have abundance in our lives, which leads to gratitude. Whereas unhealthy comparisons lead to a shrinking soul, gratitude does the opposite. Doing something good for another expands our souls.
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power," a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Visit her website nelsonjuliek.com, where she writes articles on the joys, challenges and power of parenting.