by Jeff Devens

This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, Fall 2016.

In spite of our efforts to help our children focus on self-improvement, the tendency remains for them to look outward for inward validation. Case in point: what’s the first thing kids do after receiving a grade on an exam, quiz, or project? They look at their peers’ scores and rank order themselves accordingly.

The Cost of Comparison

At some level, all of us rely on comparison as a means of validation; however, when not put in proper perspective, comparison becomes a cruel taskmaster. It teaches Heather, for example, there will always be someone smarter, prettier, nicer, skinnier, happier, more athletic, more artistic, and healthier than her. It teaches Daniel that there will always be someone stronger, bigger, brighter, faster, and more muscular than him.

The extremes of comparison can be overwhelming. Some kids become ensnared by their shortcomings, believing there’s no use pressing on or leveraging possibilities. Author of The Comparison Trap, Sandra Stanley, notes that, “There’s no winning with this type of comparison.” But, what if comparisons could be harnessed to promote healthy momentum? For this to occur, one significant issue must be sorted: Who or what do your kids look to when determining that they’re okay? In other words, who or what do they compare themselves against to measure their self-worth?

Healthy standards for comparison must be actively taught and modeled. Without this, kids face a world with absurd notions of what being “the best” or “measuring up” actually means. Be sure of this: pop culture and social media, for better or worse, are actively feeding a steady stream of what it means to be ________ (fill in the blank).

Comparing one’s present situation to that of others can be a catalyst to motivate in healthy ways. Take, for example, father and wheelchair-bound son Dick and Rick Hoyt. Together they compete in athletic events promoting awareness of the physically challenged. Dick peddles, pulls, and pushes Rick through the race courses. Together they’ve completed over 1,000 races, marathons, duathlons, and triathlons (six of them being Ironman competitions). When I compare my life and the challenges I face with what the Hoyts have accomplished, it reminds me that if I put my mind to something, eventually I too can reach the finish line. Comparison in this form becomes both a healthy metric and motivator. It teaches me to be grateful and to persevere. Such comparisons can be a catalyst to spur on additional efforts, change attitudes, and keep at it.

Healthy comparisons begin by reminding kids that it’s not what they have or don’t have compared to others, it’s what they do with what they have.

Sixteen-year-old Kevin came to see me about not being selected for a position in a school-sponsored activity. For three weeks he wallowed in self-pity and was beginning to move his heart and head to not so- good places. This wasn’t the end of the world, but it sure felt like it. The conversation that ensued wasn’t pleasant, but it was necessary. Kevin needed help retooling his thinking to develop a plan.

Throughout the course of the remaining year, he applied himself, worked toward his goals, and eventually earned (operative word) a spot on the team the following year. This was one of those fortunate endings that spurred on further aspirations. Unfortunately, not all outcomes end favorably. Does this mean kids should give up, give in, and resolve themselves to apathy? May it never be! We encourage perseverance because we hold out the belief there is something better to be had, something better to be gained, all the while acknowledging present realities. Grit (guts, resilience, initiative, tenacity) is the character outcome for kids who stay the course. Our focus is on growth, potential, and possibilities; however, none of this occurs when kids fixate on what others have relative to what they lack.

The Cost of Comparison

Some suggestions for helping parents deal with comparisons:


Allow kids to question the standards you’ve set for determining your worth, and provide the rationale as to how you arrived at these conclusions.


This isn’t about arguing why they feel the way they do. Rather, it’s about acknowledging the hurt in their heart. Without this, there will be little to no forward momentum. I’ve worked with hundreds of teens with broken hearts. What I know with certainty is kids need to know, in their hearts, that adults aren’t merely trying to change their minds. Changing a mind begins by validating a heart.


Formulate new plans and press on. If they persist in wallowing, reach out to their teachers, coaches, or other mentors who can encourage positive forward momentum. In many cases, kids compare their weaknesses to others’ strengths, instead of focusing on their efforts and attitude. We must help them avoid this sort of reasoning.


For many kids, their worth is tied to performance (i.e., academic, athletic, artistic, etc.). This puts them on a treadmill of anxiety, stress, and negative comparison. Instead, help them emphasize the process of their growth, not the final product. It’s the process that produces the results, and their feelings are part of this process. Remember, this won’t be a one-off conversation; it’s active and ongoing.

Click here to read more articles from Journeys Magazine, Fall 2016.


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