“You need to watch your sister, she’s better at it than you.”
I watched my daughters face fall and instantly regretted my words. I tried to make up for it, explaining that she wasn’t bad, and gave examples of things she did better than her sibling. I went into a long spiel about how we could all “learn from each other” and blah blah blah, but no matter how hard I tried to justify it, I knew I’d created a wound in my daughters heart.
As thought more about it last night, I realized the problem wasn’t in the acknowledgment that one sister is better at something. The problem was that one sister felt demeaned because her sister was better. And for the first time I saw how, over the years, I’d created an environment for my kids which made them measure their own self-worth by comparing themselves to others.
Today, I sat down with the kids and apologized for my words and the ways I’d compared them in the past and the ways I’d raised them to compare themselves with others. As we spoke, my oldest daughter mentioned how she’d given herself a goal of catching up to one of the girls in her violin class, and we realized that seeking affirmation by comparison could easily rob us of the joy God wants to give us in our lives. My daughter might not have time to practice as much as her friend, because she has other interests. If her goal is to do as well as someone else, how long will it take before she starts to resent the blessings in her life (caring for her goats, riding her horses, spending time with her siblings) keeping her from practicing enough to achieve that goal? By measuring herself against someone else, she could easily rob herself of the blessings God has given her, making sacrifices she ordinarily wouldn’t make (or resent the things keeping her from doing so,) in order to affirm her worth based on someone else’s life.
I’m sorry to say it’s a trap I have fallen into many, many times. Just a few days ago, I agonized over whether to put the kids in summer lessons so they didn’t “fall behind” the other kids. By whose standard was I measuring their progress? And if we’d done it, what kinds of sacrifices would we have made? Beyond the financial strain of summer classes, we enjoy our breaks from town and the quiet peacefulness of a season at home, which could have been sacrificed by comparison I didn’t even recognize.
I think there’s a fine line between acknowledging the good in someone else and being inspired to rise to their level, and feeling pressured to “keep up with the Joneses.” I definitely want my children to experience inspiration that encourages them to set goals for themselves and work hard to achieve those goals. In another set of circumstances, my comparison of the girls could have been encouraging to each of them. But because I’d somehow laid a harmful foundation of unhealthy comparison, it was not. If the kid’s teachers told us they should take summer classes because it would benefit them or because they would lose valuable skills during the break, we would absolutely put them in classes. But doing so because they’re “falling behind” in comparison with their peers has more to do with my own feelings of inadequacy than my children’s well-being.
The world is not made up of measuring sticks, but of burning bushes. Not markers to make us feel ahead or behind, but flames to help us see that God is here. I am thankful for the lesson we learned today, and pray God will keep it in the forefront of our minds and help us throw away our measuring sticks… into the fire of the burning bush.
“Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” (Galatians 6:4-5 NLT).