Ever catch yourself comparing your kids to somebody else’s kids? Ever compare your homeschool to someone else’s homeschool?
I’m guessing we’ve all done this a little. I think it’s because we’re looking for reassurance and a sense of belonging. As parents, we like knowing we’re on the right track. We find comfort knowing we’re not so totally different that we should be worrying about it. Am I right?
But, sometimes, comparisons can go too far. Maybe you know people who make it a habit of comparing themselves to others? Maybe — that person is you?
Let me tell you what’s wrong with the comparison game. But, first, let me explain how it manifests in the homeschooling community (at least the way I’ve noticed it).
The comparison game is played when one person starts watching another family, chatting with the other parent, and asking questions like, when-did-your-kid-do-this and how-does-your-kid-do-on-that. Questions usually center around quantity, timing and degree. At beginner levels, the first person takes mental notes on what she’s hearing and creates visuals in her mind of how her kids stack up. At this stage, it’s hardly visible to the other players (who might not even realize the game is going on).
At more advanced levels, the first player starts sharing things about her kids do, too. Usually, she’ll share better things and bigger victories, mindful only to share when her kids’ performance exceed the levels she perceives on the playing field. This stage can be either one-sided or interactive, but always ends in making the other players feel bad.
Reaching expert level in the comparison game doesn’t take long, just practice. Unfortunately, the price of doing it so well is having to homeschool alone, because other people won’t stick around for very long. It’s no fun being with “winners” in this game. They’re obnoxious and annoying. All they do it take from relationships, never offering help or support in return.
Though I’ve painted an extreme picture, I think we can all relate to this story on some level. While some level of comparison might not be so bad, it’s those extreme levels that are unpleasant for us to be around.
Which is a good thing, really. Because comparing children isn’t as helpful as one might think. You might actually want to rethink doing it.
Wait — isn’t comparison the way we’re supposed to know how our kids are doing?
Hear me now.
Though a parent may feel satisfied upon hearing her child’s abilities exceed those of other kids, as it turns out, that kind of data isn’t so helpful after all. Since kids are so different, there is a wide range of what is normal among children. Measuring one kid against another isn’t really fair, because no two are exactly alike. You’ve heard how some kids can read at age 3 and some don’t really start until 9 or 10, right?
Another reason comparisons don’t really work is because there are so many other factors that can play into kids’ performance. Since it isn’t possible to control all the other factors (mood, environment, hunger, aptitude, preparation, home life, etc.) comparisons like that just aren’t valid.
So, is comparison helpful? And how?
Good comparison starts with objective measures. Things we can somewhat control, and that are very similar, too.
Comparing last year’s work to this year’s work is a good place to start. That kind of information tells us our children are progressing, and can also tell us the basic rate at which they seem to move. The method isn’t perfect, but it can often tell us our kids are learning, sometimes giving clues for what to add (or nix) the following year.
Another good comparison is comparing what our kids can do with what a variety of textbooks, curriculum products or placement tests say they should be able to do. Or thereabouts. Again, not perfect. But, a semi-helpful gauge of where our kids might be, at some given point in time. Trying not to box our children into a set of rules, we can use this kind of data as a general guide, that’s all.
A third type of decent comparison comes when we look at how large numbers of other students typically perform in certain grades. That data can be interesting, if only to get an overall understanding of what many children tend to do at that age, but not expecting exactly the same results in our homes. Looking over national averages, regional averages, findings of large research studies, and standardized test results are just some of the places we can turn for approximate measures of where kids tend to be at certain points in time.
Let us remember in all cases, however, these are merely approximations of children, not always what we should expect from our own very unique children.
When comparison is not helpful, however, is in smaller doses. As in, comparing our kid to another we just met. Or comparing our kid to another child we’ve only heard/read about.
Basically, don’t participate in the comparison game.
The best small comparisons can do is generate false data, or make someone feel bad for not measuring up. Never a good thing.
That’s why comparisons based on chats with parents of children on the playground, children in the youth group, and children in the homeschool co-op isn’t recommended. Those aren’t real samples of children. Why would you compare very different children to your own?
Another reason spot comparisons don’t work is because we know nothing about all of the other factors that might explain the differences. We don’t know, for example, the obstacles the other child may be facing. We don’t know the amount of effort the other child is putting in. We have no idea how much parental support the other child receives, the methods used to teach him, the quality of the home environment, the levels of external support the other family receives, or anything. It’s the old apples-to-oranges test.
You know where else comparison isn’t useful? In our own families. It’s never fair to compare our kids to one other. Do you have one messy child and one who is very organized? Do you expect the same level of room tidiness from each of them? Why, then, expect them to be identical students?
Comparing to “Internet families” isn’t wise, either. While it may be fascinating to read what goes on in other homes (those peek-inside-my-home blogs), remember, blogs written by Internet-families represent just the tiniest look into their lives. There are factors behind those stories we’ll never know.
While it’s tempting to wonder how our children stack up against other kids, it’s important to remember how harmful it is to make comparisons during the homeschooling years. Nothing tears a parent down faster than believing she’s doing a terrible job or depriving her children. Besides, we all homeschool differently making such comparisons nearly impossible.
Making improper comparisons on our own, or playing the comparison game with others, can cause great anguish and much self-doubt among homeschool parents.
For the sake of your success and happiness, it may be best to avoid comparison altogether.
Dr. Marie-Claire Moreau is a college professor who traded in her tenure to become a homeschool mom 20+ years ago. The founder of many homeschool groups and organizations, she works to advance home education, and is an outspoken supporter of education reform coast to coast. Her book, Suddenly Homeschooling: A Quick Start Guide to Legally Homeschool in Two Weeks, is industry-acclaimed as it illustrates how homeschooling can rescue children and families from the system, and how anyone can begin homeschooling within a limited time-frame, or with no educational background whatsoever. A liaison for regional school-to-home organizations and a homeschool leader in Florida, Marie-Claire also mentors homeschool families nationwide. A conference speaker, she has appeared at FPEA, H.E.R.I., Home Education Council of America, and many other events. She currently writes for audiences at Quick Start Homeschool, which she founded in 2010, and as a guest writer on other sites as often as she can. Her articles have appeared in CONNECT magazine, on Homefires, at Circle of Moms, and she has contributed to hundreds of other blogs nationwide. Dr. Moreau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.