Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Why do parents compare and contrast with other children

Ragini, a primary teacher was telling me this story.

Ragini announced a drawing competition at the school. Some parents called her to ask who is going to evaluate the pictures. Some parents asked her the type of pictures the children can draw in the competition, some asked if they can use a 'premium colour pencils' for drawing or not. Some parents asked 'what are the prizes'. Ragini told me she was surprised with the parent's desire 'to outshine other children'. She complained 'why are parents constantly comparing their child with other child?'

Every parents knows that every child is unique and different from others. Infact they can narrate more than one ways by which their child is different. Despite this awareness, why are parents constantly comparing their child with other child all the time? There seems to be three valid reasons.

One, they use other children as a benchmark to judge their child's performance. In absence of any 'solid evaluation test' to evaluate their child in a specific activity such as drawing, they use comparisons to evaluate their child's ability in a specific area. Probably this is what some parents were doing at Ragini's school. Infact this is an ideal way of finding if your child is good in sports activities as well as 'artistic' activities like drawing or singing. Why is comparison 'good' for music and sports activities? They are good for two reasons.

Firstly, these activities develop at an early age, because they use senses and body coordination. Secondly, the output is visible to all and therefore comparable. For instance, one can easily listen to a child singing a song and compare if it is better than some other child of the same age. This comparison shows your child's 'advance' development of these abilities and can help you decide if the child can choose them as their talent zone. Infact because of these two characteristics of sports and music activities, comparisons and competitions are natural way of enabling children to grow their skill/talent in sports and music.

Two, some parents use comparison to motivate their child in action. In episodic routine activities where  child shows very little interest, parents use comparison to motivate their children. But these activities should be episodic in nature like cleaning the cupboard or washing the car. However, if you use 'comparison' too often, it loses its edge and shine sooner than later.

Three, some parents also use 'comparison' to motivate the initiation of child in a new activity; but this has to be done very 'sensitively' and 'expertly' like Ashna. 

Ashna had two children: one four year old son and another seven old daughter. Her daughter did not like swimming. However whenever she took her son for his swimming lessons, she took her daughter along. However she consciously avoided 'comparing' her daughter with her son in 'swimming' and let her daughter experience the 'contrast' herself. But her daughter's friends unknowingly praised her brother; even neighbours did the same. Ashna however avoided the comparison completely.  Slowly the daughter expressed her desire to learn swimming. 

Subtle and indirect comparison can be used to initiate a child in doing any new activity. Can it be used for continuing the activity? To continue to work with the  musical and sports activity, children themselves use 'comparison' as a benchmark in their talent acquisition, especially in the talent exploration phase of talent building 

But can you help your child to continue to work on intellectual activity by comparing his work with other children's work? Studying academic subjects like science, history or mathematics are intellectual activities of a child. It is difficult to use 'comparison' to motivate a child to work on intellectual activity because of two reasons. One, output of intellectual work is not visible ( and comparable) like work in music/sports. Two, 'test/exam marks' of intellectual activity cannot be used as used as a comparison benchmark because marks lead to wrong comparison.

Marks cannot measure child's progress in intellectual activity accurately, because they measure what the 'school' system wants to measure, not 'what the child is learning'. Because of the pedagogic method adopted by schools, marks measure the depth of intellectual work of the child only upto 10 feet. But, to acquire useful 'knowledge'(to build the vertical and logical chains of abstractions), the child has to learn upto the depth of 100 feet. Morever, as intellectual work matures much later than music/sports activity, the result of poor intellectual effort is shown at the later age.

More importantly, comparing marks of your child with other children is not helpful in determining the corrective effort required. As the intellectual effort is 'within the mind' of the child, one has to re-visit the child's steps to understand what mistake he is making. Only then one can guide the child in taking the right  'efforts' to 'correct' the mistake. Unlike music/sports activity, marks of intellectual activity are not enough for  the child into correcting himself.


1. Comparison (comparing your child's performance with other child) is a good tool to guide your child's performance in musical and sports activity, especially in the talent exploration phase of talent building.

2. Comparison tool could also be used to initiate a child in new activity.

3. Comparison is a wrong tool to guide your child in performing intellectual activity.Infact, because you are using a wrong tool, it produces unintended side effects like anxiousness and frustration in child because he is unable to do anything 'meaningful' with the comparison. In other words, avoid comparison if you want to help your child in excelling in intellectual activity.

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