Positive Self-Concept: Setting Your Children Up For Success
Most of us have been trained to compare ourselves to others; it’s embedded in our culture. “I’m not as good looking as Jessica,” or “I’m not as good a skiier as Ralph.” “I don’t play bridge as well as Elaine.” It’s always possible to find someone who does things better than you do. This is particularly true for children. Children grow up in families with parents who are older and more capable, and often with older siblings who can do more.
In schools, children are often compared to others in their class, rather than to how well they did last year or two years ago. This means that a child could make remarkable improvement that no one noticed – because the child was still “lower than average,” compared to the other children in the class. With school systems where kids get new teachers every year, it’s very difficult even for a good teacher to know about the child’s progress over time – and therefore difficult to help the child appreciate his progress and use it as the basis for self-esteem and motivation.
Comparing yourself to someone else can be useful if you only use it to discover a sense of what is possible for someone to achieve. But how many times have you admired someone’s skill and immediately followed that with the thought, “I could never do that.” If you did that, you made a statement about how you thought about yourself – what’s often called “self-esteem.” Self-other comparisons are probably the major cause of low self-esteem and subsequent stress. It’s common knowledge that low self-esteem and stress help induce a variety of problems, both psychological and physical. Psychologists often speak of these as causes for behavioral problems ranging from suicide to violence and abuse of others. Certainly helping each child feel good about him or herself can go a long way toward steering children in a more positive direction.
Training children to make self-self comparisons teaches them to have pride, and appreciation for their own progress over time. This is independent from other people, so you can feel good no matter how good or not good others are at something.
In studying successful adults, we’ve noticed that adults who make self-self comparisons often are more successful and experience less personal stress than those who are driven by comparisons to others.
It’s less obvious that comparing oneself to others and coming out better can be equally problematic. “I’m better than Jane at X.” The child who makes many self-other comparisons may feel a need to be better in order to be worthwhile. This child is likely to be competitive, and to participate only if he or she can be best. In the extreme, this kind of competition often leads to fighting, resentment, and hostility between the child and others.
In the next section, you’ll find examples of how to deal with self-other comparisons where the child thinks/notices he is better than someone else.
Making Comparisons that Enhance your Child’s Self-Concept
Jolene, age 6, was very interested in music. She took every opportunity to listen to music on the radio, and walked around the house singing little tunes more often than not. She’d been begging her parents for music lessons, but so far that had been too much money. Jolene’s older cousin, Rachael, had been taking piano lessons for two years, and was already quite good. Jolene was excited to be visiting Rachael’s house, because she knew she’d have a chance to sit down and find out what a piano was like. None of Jolene’s friends had one.
At Rachael’s house, Jolene quickly found the piano and started gently pressing some of the keys. She was delighted with the combinations of sounds that came from the piano.
A few moments later, Rachael came in the room and asked “Do you want me to show you how to play the piano?” “Sure,” replied Jolene. Rachael sat down to play several songs she’d practiced for some time. Jolene listened, entranced with the wonder of music, until her reverie was interrupted by her older brother who had also been listening. “That’s great, Rachael. You’re a really good musician. Boy, Jolene can’t play at all – she sounded terrible!” Up until this point, Jolene hadn’t thought to compare the sound of her own experimenting on the piano with the sounds that Rachael was producing. Now that she thought about it, she realized her brother was right. She did sound terrible compared to Rachael. She must not be any good at it.
Jolene decided to play in the back yard the rest of the day. Several months later when her parents said they had the money for music lessons, Jolene said she’d changed her mind about music. She didn’t think she really wanted to do it.
How many of you have had your children come home saying “Joey is better than me at such and so.” or “I’m a lot better than my little brother.” Everyone makes comparisons. Kids make comparisons to other kids. Your children compare what they can do with what their brothers and sisters can do. Teachers compare children – the grading process at school compares them to each other.
When people focus on comparisons between themselves and other people, someone has to come out the loser. It’s impossible for everyone to be best. Someone has to be worse.
For many children, these comparisons can be damaging. If they don’t happen to be at the top of the class, or the most capable sibling, they feel bad. Even children who objectively are doing very well, often feel bad because they focus in on one area where they can find someone better than them. Other children decide they are “better” than everyone else, act accordingly snobbish, and lose friends.
Children are unlikely to stop making comparisons. The question becomes, “How can we help them make comparisons that will enhance each child’s self-esteem?”
Replace Self-Other Comparisons with Self-Self Comparisons
The kind of comparisons that are devastating to many children, and was for Jolene, are Self-Other comparisons: The child, or someone else, compares the child to an “other” person.
You can train your children to make a different kind of comparison–one that will give your child self-confidence, and build motivation for your child to learn more. What kind of comparisons will do this? Comparisons between their abilities now and their abilities at some time in the past. (Self-Self Comparisons.)
Back to Jolene; Doing it Better:
Let’s replay the Jolene scenario with self-self comparisons and find out how this works: Jolene has been listening to Rachael play piano and Jolene’s brother makes his comment. Jolene’s mother overhears the comment, and quickly pokes her head into the piano room. “Rachael is good, isn’t she,” Jolene’s mother comments. “I’ll bet you’re a lot better than when you started, aren’t you, Rachael?”
“Oh Yes,” acknowledges Rachael. “I’ve been taking lessons for two years.”
“You know, Jolene, continues her mother, “Rachael reminds me of the way you’ve really learned how to sing. Do you remember how much better you can sing now than you could when you were only four? You can sing songs better and better.”
Jolene nods, she does remember. She feels much better thinking about something she’s become good at.
“If you want to, some day you may be able to take piano lessons and get better at that, too. Just like Rachael did.”
“Oh, I’d love that,” responds Jolene.
Your children will have a much more solid and secure sense of self-confidence if they learn to notice their own progress, rather than build their sense of self-esteem on having to be better than other people. Rather than teaching your children to compare themselves to others, you can teach your child to compare his abilities now to his lesser abilities in the past. This way your child can feel pleased with his accomplishment and progress, and feel motivated to continue to get even better.
Self-Self Comparisons: How to Build Them
Here’s how to transform self-other comparisons into self-self comparisons: If your son comes home and says “Joey plays basketball better than I do,” he is making a self-other comparison. He’s comparing his skill to someone else’s skill. To make this into a self-self comparison, you help your son turn his focus of attention to his own skill now compared to his skill in the past.
“So Joey is better, huh?”
“What lets you know that Joey is better?”
“He got 4 free throws in a row! I’ve only gotten 2 in a row.”
“Hum, it sounds like Joey is very good at backetball. He must have practiced a lot. You know, you are a lot better than you used to be at playing basketball. Do you remember that?”
Transforming Self-Other Comparisons into Self-Self Comparisons Step-by-Step Method: When Someone Else is “better”
Step 1. Acknowledge your child’s opinion
“You think Joey is better, huh.”
This acknowledgement puts you in rapport with your child. If you just say “You’re wrong.” or “So what, it doesn’t matter,” you’ll mismatch your child’s experience. Your child is likely to feel misunderstood. By acknowledging your child’s opinion, you start by building a basis of understanding.
Step 2. Identify Your Child’s Evidence
“How do you know that?”
Sometimes it’s obvious what evidence your child is using to draw a conclusion about who is better. At other times it’s important to find this out. For example, does he think Joey is better at basketball because he has observed that Joey shoots more baskets, or did Joey just say he was better and your son believed him?
Step 3. Make Success a Function of Behavior.
“Joey must have practiced a lot.”
When children think of a skill as “just the way someone is,” it can make the skill seem unattainable. People who are motivated to become skilled in any area usually think of the skill as attainable with practice. If you think skill is a result of an “inborn ability” then there’s no point in practicing. This is an opportunity for you to help your child build a belief that will serve him. “Remember how much you’ve practiced to get good on your skateboard?”
Step 4. Change to Self-Self Comparison.
“Joey is better now than he used to be.” “You’re much better than you used to be.”
After steps 1-3, your child is now in a position to appreciate his or her own progress through time, rather than respond to how he is better or worse than someone else.
While this method includes four steps in a particular order, in some circumstances is may not be necessary to include steps two and/or three. You will notice that some steps are omitted in some of the examples, or may sometimes occur in a slightly different order.
Self-Other to Self Self Comparisons Summary:
- Acknowledge your child’s opinion or observation.
- Identify Your Child’s Evidence “What makes you think Joey is better?” “What let’s you know Sherri is faster?” “What gives you the impression that….?”
- Make success a function of behavior – Redescribe it in a way that makes it attainable. “He must have practiced a lot.”
- Change to self/self comparison “You’re better now at X than you were a year ago.”
Examples of Building Self-Enhancing Comparisons in the Family:
With our children, I began to build self-self comparisons as soon as the children began to compare themselves to each other. Since older children are able to make comparisons first, these are usually “I’m better than my younger brother/sister” comparisons. These comparisons are usually very innocently offered. The older child just notices that he/she is better, and mentions this fact, without realizing the impact on the younger child.
Helping your children shift to self-self comparisons will do a lot to transform what could become “sibling rivalry,” into cooperation:
Mark, 4 1/2, and Loren, 2 1/2, were cutting.
“I can cut a lot better than Loren!” commented Mark.
“Yes, you can. You’re really good at cutting!” (I’m complementing Mark without comparing him to Loren.) “You’ve gotten a lot better than you were when you were Loren’s age.”
“Yeah. Then I could just cut like this and this.” (Mark demonstrated with awkward gestures.)
“Uh huh. I bet Loren will get better just like you did. Loren is an excellent cutter for someone who is just two years old. (Loren is present, and I want him to have a sense of competence also.) I bet you like being a good cutter, and having a brother who is such a good cutter.”
Mark has been following all of this very thoughtfully. He is thinking about how much better he is now, and how much better Loren will be, and how he can take pride in his brother’s accomplishments too.
Transforming Self-Other Comparisons into Self-Self Comparisons When Someone Else is “worse.”
Step 1. Acknowledge your child’s opinion
“Yes, you are good at cutting.” By saying this, I can support Mark’s ability without comparing him to Loren.
Step 2. Identify Your Child’s Evidence
Step 3. Make Success a Function of Behavior.
Step 4. Be sure you supply a Self-Self Comparison for each child present
After saying “Mark, you’re better than you were before,” I add, “And Loren will be much better than he is now when he is your age, won’t he.” This gives Loren a better way to think about his progress than if he were to compare his skill to Mark’s. Loren can be assured that he is better now than he was before, and he will be even better than he is now.
When both children in the comparison are present, it’s particularly important to provide both with a positive self-self comparison that builds self-esteem and motivation.
Mark, at 5 1/2, was getting interested in competitive games such as racing. One afternoon I was taking him and his brother Loren, 3 1/2, to the park, along with a plastic bat and several soft balls. They always love the park, and I thought I’d teach them beginning baseball.
Mark: I know. Let’s play a game. Mommy, you throw the ball to me and I’ll bat it, and then you throw another ball to Loren, and we’ll see how far he can bat it, and whoever hits the ball the farthest wins.
Loren: No, I don’t want to play that. (Loren had already learned that he didn’t fare well in competitive games with his older brother. Rather than lose every time, he preferred to not play.)
I could see Mark’s disappointment that he wasn’t going to have anyone to play with.
Me: I know a new game you boys might like to play. Do you want to know what it is? (I’m generating interest before I give them information. If they’re not receptive, I’d be wasting my time trying to talk them into something.)
Mark & Loren: What?
Me: First I’ll throw the ball to Mark, and he can bat it. We’ll put a marker where the ball lands. Then Mark can bat the ball again, and see if he can bat it farther than he did last time. If he hits it farther, he wins. Then Loren can have a turn. Loren can hit the ball, and we’ll mark where it lands. Then if Loren bats the ball farther, he wins. That way you both can win.
Mark and Loren: Yeah! Let’s play that game.
Both boys have a great time with this game. Later I overhear Mark telling Loren that Loren was batting the ball really well because he was hitting it a lot better than Loren used to when he was only two.
Clearly Mark has learned the ability to make positive self-self comparisons and is now helping Loren do the same. This is the result of my making similar comments to many of Mark or Loren’s comparisons, over time. Self-self comparisons provide a way for the boys to take pride in each other’s progress, along with their own.
In many families, each child develops a certain “niche” in which the other children are not as capable. “I’m the artistic one,” “I’m the social one,” or “I’m the mathematical one.” The oldest child has the first opportunity to develop a skill or “success area.” If the younger child is compared to the older child in this area, the younger child will come out worse. The younger child then typically “decides” to ignore this area and get good at something else. (Just as Loren “decided” not to play ball with Mark.) If being better than others is emphasized in the family, the older child may be relieved not to have “competition” in his domain of success.
Helping your children make self-self comparisons usually results in much more flexibility in children’s areas of success. Your children will still have their strengths and weaknesses, as do ours. My goal with our children is for each of them to feel welcome to develop in all areas – including areas where their older siblings are already outstanding. If handled carefully, the older sibling will (usually) feel supportive of the younger sibling’s developing skill, and the younger sibling can experience the older sibling’s skill as a resource to draw upon. Mark, who loves to draw himself, often exclaims “Loren, that’s a really nice drawing!” or compliments him on some other skill. And Loren already expresses some pride in what Darian can do.
Even when using these methods, don’t expect your children to take on this way of thinking right away, or to keep it up all the time. You are building a way of perceiving over time; it is not magically created in an instant.
Extra Comparisons: For an extra “stretch,” you can try out some of the following comparisons as well, to find out how your children respond.
- Compare Self/Self into the future:“How much better do you think you’ll be a year from now?”
(This directs the child’s attention to future improvement.)
- Compare Self/Other in another area where skills are reversed:
“I’ve noticed that you are better than Joey at playing together with the other kids. Maybe you two will learn from each other.”
(Brings the relationship back to symmetry.)
- Compare Other Now to Other Past “He seems to have improved a lot over the last year.”
“Do you think he’s gotten better over this year?”
(This focuses attention on progress over time for the other person.)
Presuppositions Imbedded in this Method:
Often what we presuppose in our behavior has a greater impact than what we state directly. Here are some of the presuppositions embedded within many of the examples of creating self-self comparisons.
1. Behavior leads to success.This places accomplishment within the person’s control–it’s not a function of inborn “personality” or “talent” etc. which can’t be controlled. Gaining Skills is moved out of the realm of Being, and into the realm of Doing.
2 People become capable fastest by cooperating with each other and competing with themselves. Kids can learn from each other, and support each other’s competence and progress.
3. Competent others are positive resources to learn from, not threats. Children can feel good to have capable sisters and brothers and friends – not threatened that someone else is “better.”
In our culture, competition has been touted as a way to achieve excellence. While it is motivating for some, it generally creates in-fighting, viciousness, and many other things that hamper excellence. Self-self comparisons preserve the goal of have a way to motivate ourselves toward excellence, but not at the expense of others. The more of this kind of excellence there is around us, the more we all will benefit.