We live in a competitive society which impacts us – and our children – in many ways. A little two and a half year old I was introduced to recently proudly showed off the uniform he was wearing to compete in the “big game” of his soccer league. Children are given more and more tests these days to measure their achievement, compare them to others, and rank them accordingly. Parents feel pressure for their children to achieve in many areas, so they will be advantaged in school, work, and life; children in turn feel that pressure.
People react differently to this pressure to be number one, and to have their children be number one. Some parents look for ways to diminish the influence of competition. Others say they don’t like it, but since that’s the way it is, they have to be part of it or their children will lose out.
Depending on their own point of view, parents also respond differently to their children. At one extreme is the Chinese tiger mother who reported tearing up the card her daughter made for her because it wasn’t good enough. One of her accusations was that Western mothers are too worried about their children’s self-esteem.
I don’t know if they are too worried, but parents do get concerned when the constant comparison to others causes children to start questioning their own self-worth. A mother told me about her son’s upset when the teacher made a positive comment about another child’s paper rather than his. He said that meant his paper wasn’t as good.
Good, better, best. How can we help children deal with those gradations when there is so much pressure – sometimes from us – to be the best? The reality is that there are very few people who are the best at everything, and that certainly applies to children as well. The problem is how to help children keep from equating “not the best”, with “not good”. How can we help them know when they are good, even when they are not the best, and that perhaps they can get better with practice or work.
Here is where we have to get real, both with our children and ourselves. This means acknowledging first to ourselves our children’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the idea is conveyed that a child is not so good at something because he or she is not trying, or working hard enough. Other times more emphasis is put on those areas that a child finds more difficult.
This happens a lot with sports. Especially during the growing years, some children seem to be especially well coordinated and natural athletes. Some children hit the home runs and get to be captain while others are the last ones picked for the team. Obviously, this doesn’t feel very good, and children often become resistant to sports as a result.
The same is true in other areas of children’s lives as they are growing up. Some children are more social, others seem to be natural leaders around whom others gravitate. Some are more creative or musical, others excel in science, or building things. Children themselves are very aware of these differences. At different stages of development certain skills may be more valued in their peer group than others. But if what they are good at is not valued now, they may value their own skills less.
Parents often react in one of two ways – or both ways at different times. One way is to provide more instruction or put emphasis on those areas where a child is not as good as some peers. In some situations that is appropriate and helpful. But another common reaction is to offer reassurance – even insist that a child is just as good as anyone else, or everyone else. The problem is that children don’t believe you when you do that and it makes them feel that you “don’t get it”.
Parents worry that a child will believe he’s not good at something and want to reassure him that it’s not true. But the fact that the child feels that way is true, no matter what the reality may be. You can validate a child’s feeling without validating the fact. It’s hard to feel that you are not good at something. Showing an understanding of the feeling is what can open the larger conversation about people being good or best at different things.
The child whose paper had not been singled out had in fact been singled out for praise at other times. Self-esteem comes from an ability to appreciate one’s own strengths and skills. Praise for those strengths is more readily valued when it connects with what is real for a child rather than offered to contradict his feelings.
The challenge for us as parents is to help a child become the best that he or she can be – not necessarily better than someone else. That’s not easy to do when the pressure all around is to be “the best”.