One child takes off his boots at the back door. The other, leaves a trail of muddy water across the kitchen floor. At times like this, it is tempting to compare siblings; “Donna, look at the mess you made! Why can’t you be more like your brother? He knows better than to walk through the house with wet boots on.”

Comparing one child to another increases sibling rivalry, by creating a win/lose relationship. It pits siblings against each other for a sense of self worth. Yet, even the most well meaning parents find themselves comparing at one time or another. How does comparing lead to trouble between siblings? What can you do when you are tempted to compare?

One mom said to her daughter, “Shawne, your room is a mess. Lori would never leave her room like that. Go to your room and don’t come out until it’s as clean as Lori’s.” Shawne begins cleaning her room. The comparison seems to lead to positive results, but let’s take a closer look. If you could read Shawne’s mind as she heads off to her room, what would she be thinking? “I’m so glad I have a sister like Lori. Thanks to her, I know exactly how clean my room needs to be,” or, “Lori is always getting me into trouble. I wish I didn’t have a sister. I’ll make her pay for this.” When you look at a comparison from the child’s point of view, it’s no surprise that hostile feelings are created.

The hostility one child feels for another, after being compared, can poison the sibling relationship. Good feelings are replaced with resentment and frustration, and sometimes fantasies of revenge. Worse yet, children learn to value themselves based on their sibling’s behaviors and attributes instead of their own.

How can mom encourage Shawne to clean her room without comparing? She can specifically describe what she wants from her child without any mention of a sibling. “The toys on your bedroom floor need to be put in the toy box and your drawers need to be closed.” What does Shawne think now? “Oh darn, I guess I have to finish cleaning my room.” Did you notice that she was not distracted by thoughts about her sibling this time?

Replace unfavorable comparisons with a specific description of how you feel or what you need from the individual child.

Instead of comparing: "You would get better grades, if you worked as hard as Martha," describe how you feel about this child: "I feel confident that more study time will help you improve your grades."

Instead of comparing: "Stop shouting. Osa never talks to me that way," describe what you need from this child: "I expect you to tell me how angry you are without raising your voice."

We compare because it seems like a good way to motivate. In reality, children often feel less motivated than ever. Kids who believe that they can’t live up to a siblings accomplishments, stop trying. If they can’t be best at being good, they may decide to be best at being bad. This negative outcome can be sidestepped by eliminating comparisons.

Sometimes, we compare children favorably to their siblings. Here are some favorable comparisons:

"I wish your brother took his schoolwork as seriously as you do."

"I can always count on you to be ready on time. Your brother is always making us late."

"Your hair is just gorgeous. I can’t do a thing with your sister’s hair."

On the surface favorable comparisons seem harmless. However, parents in my workshops, share the following reactions to being compared favorably to their siblings:

"I felt superior to my siblings and they still resent me for it."

"To this day, I feel pressured to be the responsible one."

"I was the smarter one. I did everything I could to make my younger brother look stupid. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be special anymore if he got attention for being smart too."

"I felt sorry for my sister, and guilty for being favored."

"I felt uncomfortable hearing my brother criticized. I wondered if they ever criticized me behind my back."

Making a child feel good at the sibling’s expense, creates a backlash of hurtful feelings. Replace favorable comparisons with a specific description of what you notice or appreciate about your child as an individual. For example, "It’s nice to see how much you value your education." "Thanks for being ready on time." "Your hair is a pleasure to look at."

Awareness helps to eliminate sibling comparisons from your parenting style. Whenever I’d hear myself begin to compare my kids, I’d stop in mid-sentence. It was surprising to see how often I’d catch myself. With practice, I began translating a comparison in my head into helpful words that focused directly to the needs of the child I was speaking to. In time, I began to see more warmth between my kids, and less conflict.

By eliminating comparisons, you increase effective communication, and decrease hostility between siblings. Instead of comparing, describe specifically what you see, feel, or need from each child individually, with no mention of a sibling. Eliminating comparisons alone, may not turn bitter rivals into loving buddies, but it does reduce friction, allowing friendly feelings to grow.

Author's Bio: 

Marilyn Suttle is a national speaker and column writer. She is founder of Suttle Enterprises, Personal and Professional Growth Seminars. She presents parenting communication tools and self esteem strategies for work and home. Ms Suttle provides a humane approach to communication, which improves relationships. Visit her web site: www.SuttleOnline.net or send email to Marilyn@SuttleOnline.net.