When parents ask, “What grade did you get?” there is a common follow-up question: “So who got the highest grade?” The practice of making such social comparisons is popular in all corners of the world, research shows. Many educators select and publicly announce the “best student” in a class or school. Adults praise children for outperforming others. Sports tournaments award those who surpass others. Last year the Scripps National Spelling Bee awarded winners with $50,000 cash prize and their own trophy—just for being better than others. Most social comparisons are so common in daily life that they are usually glossed over.
Social comparisons are well intentioned: we want to make children feel proud and motivate them to achieve. As one writer for the Novak Djokovic Foundation has noted, “Winning a game or being the best in the class gives children a good feeling about themselves and makes them proud,” and it helps “children get motivated to take the next steps to achieve even bigger goals, such as jumping even further.” Yet social comparisons can backfire: children can learn to always compare themselves with those around them and become trapped in a vicious cycle of competition.
One well-known strategy to eliminate social comparisons is to provide children with participation trophies. As the Dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland puts it: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Such awards, however, may not abolish social comparisons: despite receiving the same trophy, children are sensitive to even minor differences in performance between themselves and others. High-performing children who receive the same prize as low-performing ones may feel unjustly treated and look down on the latter group. More generally, those who receive unwarranted rewards may come to believe that they are entitled to recognition and admiration. Indeed, lavishing children with praise can, in some cases, cultivate narcissism, research shows.
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.”
In the study, we found that children who compared themselves favorably to others or to their past self all felt proud of themselves. Children who compared themselves with others, however, said they wanted to be superior to such people, while those who compared themselves with their past self said they wanted to improve rather than be superior. Temporal comparisons shifted children’s goals away from a desire for superiority and toward self-improvement.
What, then, can parents and teachers do with this knowledge? Research suggests several strategies. For one, parents and teachers can praise children’s improvement over time (“You’re getting the hang of it!”) to let them know they are making progress and heading in the right direction. Also, teachers can create learning contexts that track children’s own progress over time, such as report cards that display their changes in learning and performance. By doing so, adults teach children that outperforming oneself is more important than outperforming others and that even small victories may be celebrated.
Of course, temporal comparisons are not a panacea; we should never push children to improve themselves relentlessly. The road toward self-improvement is paved with struggles and setbacks. Rather than making children feel bad for those failures, we should encourage them to embrace and learn from them—and thus help youngsters become better than they were before. We need to offer children more opportunities to make temporal comparisons, so they can see how much they have learned and how much they have grown. This strategy should allow them to “jump even further.”