Lisa Cohn describes her son, Michael, as an active, self-confident 6-year-old who loves to play sports and run around with his friends. So when he started complaining about his performance at soccer games ("I can't score as many goals as the other kids"), she grew concerned. It's not unusual for 5- and 6-year-olds to compare themselves with others their age—and to conclude that they come up short. After all, so much in their lives, from reading aloud in class to playing team sports for the first time, offers an opportunityto size up the competition. "When kids begin elementary school, they're suddenly concerned with how they fit in, and making comparisons is part of that process," says Nadja Reilly, Ph.D., director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development, in Newton, Massachusetts. Although you can't stop your kid from measuring himself against others, there is plenty you can do to help keep his concerns in perspective.
Telling your savvy school-age child that he can play the piano as well as the class Mozart or draw as accurately as his older sister isn't going to fly if it isn't true. And dismissing the observation—"Who cares if Nick is better at the piano?"—won't make him feel any more secure (he cares, after all). "If you just say, 'You're wrong' or 'It doesn't matter,' he's likely to feel misunderstood," says Connirae Andreas, Ph.D., a therapist in Boulder, Colorado. Acknowledge his feelings with a simple statement: "You noticed that Nick can read music, and you'd like to be able to do that too, right?" Then help him understand how. "Emphasize the process rather than the result," says Dr. Reilly. "Your child's friend may be better because he's been practicing more or started taking lessons earlier." Let your child decide if mastering a specific task and putting in the required effort is important to him (or whether he'd be equally happy playing "Chopsticks").
If your child comes home from school upset, saying, "Kerry is prettier than I am," find out what's really behind the statement. "Ask 'Why do you think that?' " suggests Frank Sileo, Ph.D., a Ridgewood, New Jersey, therapist and author of Don't Put Yourself Down in Circus Town: A Story About Self-Confidence. Five- and 6-year-olds often jump to the wrong conclusion, mistaking a teacher's compliment to another student ("Your outfit is very pretty today, Kerry") as a statement of fact. Still, her sense that other kids are "better" could indicate an underlying problem. If she says "Emma is a better reader," for example, that might mean your child is struggling in school and needs some extra help. "Lily has nicer clothes" might reflect that your child is being teased about what she's wearing to class. "If you're concerned, talk to your child's teacher to make sure that everything's fine, academically and socially," Dr. Sileo suggests.
Watch Your Words
Make sure that you're not the one accidentally setting the comparisons in motion, advises Jayne Walco, Ph.D., a psychologist in Parsippany, New Jersey. Encouraging him
to practice tying his shoe laces is a good thing, but pushing him too hard or bringing up the fact at the dinner table that his friends already know how to tie double knots can make him think in terms of "better" and "worse" and come to the conclusion that he is inferior to his peers. "Instead, focus on supporting his interests, praising him on both his efforts and his mastery," Dr. Walco says.
Focus on Personal Growth
Teach your child that the most important comparison isn't between her and her best friend (or her classmate or big sister) but the person she was in the past. "Kids have to learn to measure themselves against themselves," says family therapist Jay Scott Fitter, author of Respect Your Children: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting. Point out how much she has improved over a short period of time: "Remember last year, when you couldn't read at all? Look how far you've come in just one year!" Then reassure her that, by trying hard and doing her best, she'll continue to get better.