The Problem with Telling Children They’re Better Than Others

How, then, can we make children feel proud of themselves and motivate them without the unwanted side effects? We believe a better approach is to use temporal comparisons —encouraging children to compare themselves with their past self rather than with others, such as by assessing how much they have learned or improved themselves. When children compare themselves with their past self, they don’t compete with others.

We investigated this approach in a recent study and found it effective. First, we recruited a sample of 583 children from various elementary and secondary schools. To set up the test, we had the children do a reading-and-writing exercise designed to influence the kind of comparisons they would make: social comparisons, temporal comparisons or no comparison at all. For example, in the social-comparison condition, a nine-year-old girl wrote, “I was better than my peers at singing. I can sing and others can’t. I find myself really important. I love singing, I keep doing it, and I’m simply the best.” By contrast, in the temporal-comparison condition, a 13-year-old girl wrote, “At first, I didn’t have many friends. But at some point, I was done with it. So, I started sitting next to random people and they became my best friends. Now that I have that many friends I feel good and confident.”

Western societies offer children many opportunities for downward social comparisons (i.e., comparing oneself favorably to others). Such comparisons make children feel proud of themselves but could inadvertently trigger a desire to be superior to others. How can children be made to feel proud without triggering a desire for superiority? We hypothesized that downward temporal comparisons (i.e., comparing one’s current self favorably to one’s past self) can make children feel proud and give them a sense of insight and progress, without triggering a desire for superiority. We randomly assigned 583 children ( M age = 11.65, SD = 1.92) to engage in social comparisons (downward or upward), temporal comparisons (downward or upward), or no comparison. As hypothesized, downward social and temporal comparisons both made children feel proud, but only temporal comparisons did so without triggering superiority goals. Relative to social comparisons, temporal comparisons gave children a sense of progress and insight. These comparison effects were similar across middle-to-late childhood (ages 8–10), early adolescence (ages 11–13), and middle adolescence (ages 14–16). Collectively, our findings suggest that social comparisons contribute a competitive interpersonal orientation marked by a desire for superiority. Temporal comparisons, in contrast, shift children’s goals away from being better than others toward being better than their own past selves. (PsycINFO Database Record © 2020 APA, all rights reserved)