Back to School

It's that time again. The start of the school year brings excitement and anticipation--as well as anxiety, fear, and loathing.

But Everyone Else Is Better Than Me!

A return to school means a return to comparisons

When kids return to school this fall, they will do what kids have always done—start making comparisons. Some of these comparisons will be obvious, such as when they compare summer vacations. Others will be more subtle, such as when they look around to see if they have the right clothes, lunch box, or haircut.

It can be difficult, as a parent, to see your child make these comparisons and fall short. Sometimes they literally fall short, as when the different developmental trajectories become apparent when the class lines up.  Boys who are shorter than the others, or girls that are taller than the others may feel awkward or out of place. More harmful may be the comparisons that lead kids to feel that they are less capable than others. In these situations, students who feel like they are the only ones who don't understand or can't complete a task may decide to withdraw effort entirely. 

Kids also use comparisons to figure out whether their opinions and attitudes are within the social norm. Especially for kindergartners, who are often coming from different backgrounds, students may find that a  game or toy that was cool in pre-K is suddenly uncool. These comparisons shape their opinions over time. Through the school year, as I spend time in my son's classroom and I can see how boys recalibrate their opinions to fit with the more dominant boys. Spiderman gives way to Ironman, and Silly Bands give way to Beyblades. The students boast and brag (out tall-tale telling) as they establish themselves within the social hierarchy of elementary school.

Though parents may find it painful to see our children subverting their own opinions and falling short compared to others, such comparisons are a natural part of life. Awareness and sensitivity to social norms and social expectations is how children learn the social values that will make them contributing members of society. In addition to learning whether or not Justin Bieber is cool, they are also learning how our society values honesty, littering, talking loudly in public on a cellphone, and a hundred other norms. And, ability-based comparisons is how we grow to understand ourselves, our strengths, and our challenges. But, while learning these social lessons is inevitably painful, there are ways that parents can help reduce that pain.

1)  Focus on the broader picture. We know from work by Patty Linville at Duke University and Allen McConnell at Miami University that people are complex. We all play a lot of different roles and have different self-aspects. For example, a girl may be a soccer player, a student in five different classes, a Girl Scout, a sister, and a daughter. Having a complex self can be buffer against the pains that might occur in any one area of her life. So, if a student is having a bad day on the soccer field, reminding her of her success in math class could be helpful. Understanding that life is a balance between challenges and accomplishments can help students recover from a negative event in one aspect of their lives.

2)  Associate with similar others, but keep reaching upwards. Just like Casey Kasem always said, "keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." According to research on breast cancer patients from Shelley Taylor at University of California at Los Angeles, both downward comparisons and upward comparisons can be helpful. In this research, breast cancer patients had the best outcomes when they evaluated their current status in relation to patients who were doing more poorly, but affiliated with patients who were doing better. For students, this would mean recognizing that they are doing better than other students, but also keeping aware of and being around students who are more successful. This creates a winning combination of maintaining positive self-views, but being aware that better performance is possible.

3)  Encourage improvement. As noted in a previous post, feeling bad isn't always bad, and feeling good isn't always good for you. But, this doesn't mean that your child should feel bad about a poor performance forever. Instead, children should be encouraged to see performance as changeable.  Carol Dweck's work on fixed versus growth mindsets has shown us that when people believe that intelligence is malleable, changeable, and improveable, then are better able to deal with setbacks and pursue their goals. Remind your child that with effort they can improve their level of performance. Maybe they can't grow taller, but they can practice at sports and get better. There are many examples of people who have overcome physical challenges to succeed. Remind and encourage your child to keep working to meet their full potential.

Comparisons are an essential part of social life. As a parent, you can equip your child to get the most out of them.

Back to School