The summer holidays in the UK is a time when the academic chickens come home to roost in terms of exam results.  Graduations, A-Level and GCSE Results Day are all happening.

If children have not performed well, or as well as expected, parents may experience a range of feelings, such as:

  • Disappointment because children are unable to progress as planned
  • Sadness that their child’s best efforts have not been rewarded with academic success
  • Anger that children have wasted their opportunities
  • Resentment of a system that has failed their children
  • Jealousy or envy of other people with children who have done well
  • Self-criticism because of a belief about not supporting their children well enough
  • Fear for their child’s future prospects

Over the next couple of weeks I will be blogging about the emotions around academic success, and discussing ways parents can manage their own feelings so that they can support their children, whatever the results.

This week I’m looking at one of the main causes for disappointment in our children.  It is our tendency to create expectations based on comparing our lives with others.

First we need to look at why we compare and why it’s a problem, and then we’ll look at ways to move away from doing it.

What Fuels Comparison?

Humans are social animals.  They exist as part of society.  In evolutionary terms acceptance is very important to survival.  Rejection is life threatening in the wild and although nowadays people can survive with little human contact, loneliness and isolation are painful.  Humans learn to fit in to be happy.

One of the ways to do this is by comparison.  By measuring ourselves against others it is possible to work out how to make ourselves more acceptable to the tribe.  We might look at someone who is very popular and think they have particular strengths that attract people.  This could be anything from beauty to strength to personality characteristics.  We then set ourselves the task of becoming more like them.

The problem with this is:

  1. It is very subjective
  • We might be mistaken in what it is that makes this person popular
  • Personality characteristics are hard to quantify, for example, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. To be beautiful depends on someone else’s opinions.  Our sense of worth becomes more dependent on other’s opinions rather than from an internal assessment of ourselves.
  1. We see what we believe
  • We can use comparison to prove something to ourselves. If we don’t believe in ourselves we will always find someone better, stronger, happier.
  1. Comparison is outward focused
  • Rather than gaining a sense of self-esteem from our own characteristics, we measure ourselves against others. This makes us vulnerable to external circumstances.  A typical example of this can be found among bright children transitioning from one school to selective education.  They may feel confident and intelligent in measuring themselves against their peers in their non-selective education. However, once they are surrounded by children as intelligent as them they may downgrade their personal value because they see nothing about themselves that makes them stand out.
  1. Comparison is rarely about equality
  • Comparison can lead to either inferiority or superiority, to either depression or arrogance. If we are truly happy with ourselves we are unlikely to engage in such comparison. We will accept that everyone is different and we will set our own standards for ourselves.

How is this Relevant to Exam Results?

We may have had hopes and dreams for ourselves and for our children.  We may have imagined ourselves as model parents who help their children with homework.  We may have thought our children would love to learn and be happy to study.  We create an internal picture of the ideal situation.

What made us create this picture?

What made us think this would be ideal?

Such expectations are usually based on what we deem makes us acceptable.  We have heard messages throughout our lives about the sorts of standards we should reach and we use comparison in order to assess whether we are meeting expectations.

In competitive Western society, it’s tempting to look at life in terms of success.  Proof of success is often associated with career and possessions.  We can compare ourselves with others who have greater material resources than us. We begin to equate happiness with success, with the ability to earn a large income, the achievement of a certain professional status.

We can look at other people’s children and think they are more acceptable because they are more successful in their exam results and have a more promising future than our children.

We may take that comparison further and compare ourselves with other parents.  We may well take responsibility for our children’s results.  We may tell ourselves that if we had dedicated more time and effort to ensuring they worked hard they would have performed better.

In this way our idealized inner picture has begun to disappoint us.  Encouraging ourselves and our children to live according to our values is no bad thing. When we find ourselves disappointed and critical, however, our inner picture may need adjusting:

  • Are our standards realistic? We have to take account of human fallibility. We are not perfect and neither are our children.
  • Are our standards capable of objective measurement? What do we mean by expecting our children to “do well”? What measure are we using?  Is it one based on comparison with others?  If so it is like comparing apples with pears.

So How do We Move Away from Comparisons?

  1. Awareness
  • The first step is to be aware that we’re doing it.  Bringing such thoughts into conscious awareness takes practice.  They can be such a reflex that we don’t realise what we’re thinking.  Often our body and our behaviour will give us clues.  For example, we may experience a sinking feeling in our belly when we are comparing ourselves negatively to others.  We may experience a sense of sadness or depression if we are being self-critical because we don’t measure up to a standard. We may notice ourselves getting cross, disappointed or resentful of others. We may feel pre-occupied.  At times like this it is worth reflecting on the deeper cause of our feelings and behaviour.
  1. Gratitude and Being Positive
  • It helps to be aware of what we do have rather than what we lack. Remember neither you nor your child is going to achieve perfection so rather than looking at the negative focus on the positive. It will help our children and ourselves if we can focus on our strengths.  Being cross achieves nothing but an optimistic outlook is helpful and brings hope.
  1. Focus on the Journey
  • It can help to have an attitude that sees life as a journey rather than a destination.  This section of the journey may be more challenging than expected but there is no reason to think it cannot be navigated.  Everyone is on their own individual journey, including ourselves and our children.  This has nothing to do with anyone else, what they have, or how they are doing.  Each of us is an individual, we are unique, we cannot be compared with anyone else.  If we all conform to the same pattern, life would be boring.

In next week's blog I will talk more about managing our feelings around results day.

Photo by Keith Luke on Unsplash

Subscribe here for The Good Enough Mum Blog