My 17-year-old daughter died in a car accident 10 years ago, a few weeks before her eighteenth birthday and her high school graduation. Before her death, I had volunteered to organize her class’s graduation ceremony, having known most of her classmates since kindergarten. The school offered to relieve me of that responsibility, but I wanted to be there. So at graduation, I sat with the other parents, whose pride and tears were palpable. I fought the voice of comparison that wanted me to feel like the loser in life. I know parents should not compare their children and experiences, but it was unfair. The other parents’ babies had reached a milestone while mine was present only in the photograph laying on top of her empty cap and gown.
During the ceremony, the students gave roses to their parents. As each of the 30 graduates handed out hugs and flowers, my heart felt as empty as my arms. Then one of the students approached me. Then another. Student after student hugged me, thanked me, and handed me a rose. Soon I had more roses in my arms than any other parent. It didn’t fully fill the void my daughter left behind, but it was a gift of love I will never forget. In it, I found new gratitude for the daughter I lost. I hope you never have to go through what I did, but my daughter’s death and this beautiful graduation taught me 5 valuable lessons about the subtle ways we compare our kids to one another.
We subtly compare our kids when we’re more enthusiastic about one child than another.
My daughter Courtney, the one who died, liked to push boundaries. I felt constantly challenged by her. She wasn’t as fun to be with as my other two children. I prayed often for God to change my heart, to help me see her through His eyes. He showed me how much she was like me. Deep down, what I really didn’t like was how I pushed boundaries. God put that inside me so as a counselor, I could help people challenge their own personal limitations and become what He designed them to be.
What you resist in your children might be gifts, too. Ask yourself why you feel resistance. Ask God to change your heart and to broaden your perspective of that child. Before she died, Courtney and I became very close. What I once resisted in her ended up bonding us.
We subtly compare our kids when we use the same consequences for all of them.
Courtney was only 14 months younger than one of my other daughters. Even though I know parents should not compare their children, they were so close in age that comparison was inevitable. And they were complete opposites. We made it a point to discipline them according to who they were individually and not according to some external metric. One leaned toward bossiness, the other stole her sister’s belongings. We found consequences that addressed the heart change required instead of just to punish bad behavior. We gave the bossy one responsibilities to manage that didn’t involve her sister, which helped her feel empowered. Her sister had to be in the sight of one of her parents at all times until we reestablished trust.
Personalizing discipline to each of the children and their needs can be challenging and requires creativity. But in the long run, each child feels seen and cared for.
We subtly compare our children when we believe other people have it better.
On graduation day I learned not only that parents should not compare their children to each other but also to other families’ kids. Someone somewhere has it better in some way. Envy tells us we are victims of our circumstances. It fills our hearts with bitterness. But comparison rooted in envy keeps us in a state of powerlessness. It tells us we are in lack and robs us of the joy of what we do have. After Courtney died, I learned to focus on my two remaining children and all the beautiful things that were still a part of my life.
It wasn’t easy, but as my heart healed from my loss, the great things in my life got more pronounced. More wonderful things were added. I miss Courtney every day and wish she were still here. But I have a life I always dreamed of in spite of it all. I believe that is largely because I didn’t allow myself to envy what others have.
We subtly compare our children when we have a critical eye.
I have leanings toward perfectionism, so my eye tends to focus on what’s wrong or needs to be fixed. These leanings, when not in check, show up as criticisms of myself and those around me. It makes others feel not good enough. But being critical isn’t the problem—the problem is comparison. When I’m paying attention to my own life instead of comparing it to someone else’s, the critical thoughts don’t happen.
I’ve learned to set my own standards for my life. When I’m doing well with this, I’m at peace and the people around me feel accepted and appreciated. Gratitude is also invaluable. It reminds me of what is great in my life despite my loss.
We subtly compare our children when we tell them they’re better than others.
I love my kids. I believe I have the best children in the world. But I know I’m biased. When my oldest daughter was in elementary school, I would find myself asking her what the other kids thought of her outfit or how they reacted to her. I didn’t realize I was teaching my kids to connect their worth to their approval. I was searching for proof that they were superior in some way. At some point, I realized and stopped asking those questions.
Giving our kids verbal appreciation is vital. But giving them a sense of superiority teaches them to look down on other people—which gives them their own voice of comparison.
What are some other ways comparison shows up in your family?