We live in a competitive society which impacts us - and our children - in many ways. Children are given more and more tests 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 have to be part of it or their children will lose out.
American parents have been accused of being too worried about children’s self-esteem. 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 still in school 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?
We have to get real both with our children and ourselves, 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.
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.
A common reaction from parents 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 about a child’s belief that 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 feelings 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.
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.”
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.