Help Kids Make Appropriate Social Comparisons

Our blog entry for 9.10.21 introduced “social comparison,” a concept developed nearly 50 years ago. One aspect of people’s evaluation of themselves – “How am I doing?” – takes place when they watch and compare themselves to what others are doing. Such comparisons can be a good thing. Many young people, for instance, can become motivated to do better when they have positive examples in their lives like parents, siblings, a teacher, or a coach.

But social comparisons can also go wrong, and make anyone, young or old, get stressed out and down on themselves. Here are two examples that pose a danger: (1) A very common social-comparison error is judging yourself against others who are shining examples of success or beauty. There will always be those better than you, and worse than you, so why restrict yourself to choosing the former for comparison? For example, you might believe you have a less active social life than others, but you don’t realize you’re always comparing yourself only to the most sociable people you know. (2) Your comparison may also be based on a faulty assumption. Consider Caitlyn, a college freshman whose self-esteem and confidence were in the toilet. Seems she was convinced that all the other students in her classes – none of whom she knew – were geniuses and she was the one dummy in the class. Her social-comparison assumption was flawed.

Social comparison can be an excellent positive coping strategy when used in the correct way, but young people are especially vulnerable to messing it up. Parents and other adult figures would do well to make their kids and youngsters in general aware of ways to use social comparisons appropriately. Here are four good principles to follow: (1) Encourage kids to make social comparisons not to criticize and put themselves down, but to motivate themselves to improve. For instance, social comparisons can reinforce self-esteem when they focus on reviewing memories of good times with their friends. In fact, sharing positive feelings and good memories contributes significantly to psychological well-being because everyone in the sharing group sees that they all have much in common. (2) Suppose your daughter feels her friend is doing better than she (daughter) is doing. Help your daughter resolve to find out what the friend is doing so daughter can emulate her. In other words, point out to your daughter that she can make her friend a cohort, an ally, not an opponent. (3) Help your child engage in critical thinking, not self-criticism. If your son feels his buddy down the street is more competent and likeable, ask your son: “Do you really have to outperform him to be a worthwhile person? Should that be your goal – always striving to outperform others? Is that a rational goal?” (4) When your child seems hung up on comparing themselves to one particular person, ask them, “Why are you comparing yourself to just this one person? Yes, Bill appears outstanding and very popular, maybe even more so than you. But Jane and Fred are also pretty successful, and you stack up pretty well with them. Why focus on Bill?”

Send kids these messages on a regular basis: Social comparisons do not have to be negative, where you compare yourself to those whose superior performance brings you down. Be  selective and realistic in your social comparisons. You’ll probably discover you have a lot of positive traits, a lot of things you can work on to improve, and a lot of skills that can bring you a sense of pride and satisfaction. That’s what it means to be realistic and rational when you size yourself up against others. There will always be those who do better than you, and those who do worse than you. Find yourself and always try to improve. That’s a valuable lesson to teach your kids – and yourself.

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