To Compare, Or Not To Compare… That’s the Academic Question

Children are wondrous Works-In-Progress. The way they grow and develop is nothing short of a miracle. The biggest error we make, and the gravest injustice to our kids, is to compare them to others. We all do it. We can’t help ourselves because that’s the way we were raised.

We were taught that trophies and report cards represent accomplishments, when in actuality, mastery and life application are what matters. Those exterior symbols may reflect your children’s achievements, and in turn, may boost their self-esteem, but those positive effects are temporary at best. 

They also are the foundation for developing an Imposter Syndrome in your child. When we, including kids, are not sure if external praise is deserved, we doubt our ability. Deep down inside we suspect a mistake has been made, and privately we know we really aren’t as nice, or intelligent, or strong, or beautiful, or likeable as the world thinks we are. That creates an underlying fear of being exposed as a “fraud” if the “truth” comes out.

Win or Lose, It’s How You Play the Game

It’s time to let go of the emphasis of awards based on comparison. Instead, focus on our kids’ personal progress. That’s what builds the foundation for long lasting self-worth. They progress, they know it, and no one can take that away from them.

When I coached basketball to middle schoolers, I always emphasized personal improvements. A trophy from a well-fought contest feels better than one received from a blow-out game against a significantly weaker team. Of course the girls were happy to win either, but the latter felt hollow and mildly embarrassing to our players in the long run. 

So, to make sure they played their best in a way they could be proud of, we changed the objective. Instead of merely racking up points, the goal now was to execute five passes before attempting a shot, or to make sure everyone on our team scored before you got another basket, or to rack up rebounds. Then we’d compare their individual progress to previous games so they could value their own improvement.

Winning because the opponent was weak creates that feeling of being a fraud. But figuring out how to break your personal rebound record by five more rebounds is something a player can own and value, since rebounds happen no matter who you’re up against.

The opposite held true, also. When faced with a tough competitor, win or lose, we always focused on their personal best. We told them that they had no control over who showed up on the other team. The only thing they could control was which part of themselves they brought to the game. Losing didn’t have the same kind of sting for young girls when they accomplished some personal best. They owned it, and it built up their internal self-worth. That lasts a lot longer than a self-esteem boosting trophy that the team earns.

Thwarting the Imposter Syndrome In Our Children

The same holds true in the classroom. School systems that use A,B,C,D,F  as their protocol (their version of a trophy) have an external reward system in place. Other schools use a Pass/Fail system to recognize student work. My personal favorite is the system that measures actual progress with criteria like Emerging or Mastery. When any of these systems focuses on individual development, the student is more likely to own their progress, and build self-worth. But, usually the goal is to do what the other kids are doing at the same speed they’re doing it, and in the same way they do it. 

I believe distance learning is especially difficult for students trained to have their self-esteem derived from comparing themselves to other students. Robbed of the ability to lean over and ask other students how they did on a test or project, they no longer have a measuring stick for propping up their self-esteem. Now, they risk being exposed as an imposter in front of their parents. If this is affecting your children, you may see

  • increased irritability and anxiety
  • hesitancy to try new things for fear of getting them wrong
  • tendency to withdraw

I also believe that parents trained to value letter grades, and whether their child is “keeping up,” find distance learning nerve wracking. Their focus on the school’s external yardsticks exposes their own imposter syndrome. They doubt their ability to be the home-teacher, forgetting that they were the ones who taught their kids to walk, talk and explore… and most likely without any specific training of their own. 

You can easily shift the focus from the external to the internal by comparing where they were this time last year, academically, athletically, etc. An emphasis on using the appropriate yardstick (personal progress) will help your kids eventually make the shift themselves, and thereby build their self-worth. 

Teach Them How To Be Smart

I kept a banner on the wall in my classroom that stated, 

“Smart” isn’t something you’re born with. “Smart” is something you become.

Anyone can become “Smart.” You just have to work at it. The brain improves the same way a muscle improves. If you challenge a muscle with exercise or movement, you become stronger. If you challenge your brain with schoolwork, art, music lessons, or puzzles, you become smarter. The more you practice, the greater the change. 

Understanding this puts the power to improve in your child’s hands. It also converts the negativity of mistakes into the positive realm of learning experiences. When something doesn’t workout right, the brain now knows to find an alternative. 

You got this!

If you’d like more, reach out to me at

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