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Teacher to Parent: You can empower your child to alter their perceptions

Jody Stallings

Jody Stallings

I have a third-grader who’s just an average student. When his classmates get 100s and he can only get 70s and 80s, it really gets him down and makes him feel dumb. How can I help him stop measuring his worth against other students?

Faults are like icebergs. Things are usually worse underneath than what we see on the surface. So chances are it isn’t just grades your child is comparing to others: it’s also his abilities, toys, clothes, appearance, family, and anything else he identifies with.

That sort of “comparison worldview” is a common weakness that makes us miserable over time, so it’s good you’ve diagnosed it early.

Traits, as opposed to behaviors, aren’t easily fixed with punishment or praise, if they can be “fixed” at all. To improve such flaws, we have to be able to recognize and replace — recognize we’re making a mistake in our thinking, and replace it with something better.

How can you get your child to do that? Brainwash him.

Okay, I know that term has a deservedly negative reputation, but if you can think of a word that means nearly the same thing without the bad parts, that’s what I’m talking about: you have to empower him to change the way he perceives himself and the world.

It’s a tall order. One helpful strategy is to find a phrase that makes the correction and use it until the child can hear it without you. Someone once said that the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. This is a good example of that.

I bet right now you can hear your parent’s voice saying something that changed your perception. I was an impatient child when it came to doing tasks and using tools. When my father would see me getting frustrated, he would always say, “You’ve got to be smarter than the (fill in the blank with whatever inanimate object was making me act like a fool).”

I still hear it. The other day I was getting frustrated trying to pack things into a box. I couldn’t get them to fit. The obvious response in that situation is to punish the box, which of course I did by giving it a swift kick. Then I heard my dad’s voice. “You’ve got to be smarter than the box.” I took a breath, thought about how best to arrange the items, and quickly got it done. I recognized and replaced, and no boxes were killed in the completion of this mission.

Many parents say these kinds of things instinctually. If you want to be more intentional, then whenever you identify a trait your child struggles with, find a corrective expression or make one up and say it every time you see the child exhibiting the trait.

In your child’s case, I can think of a few that might apply:

  • Comparison is the thief of joy.
  • Don’t try to prove yourself. Try to improve yourself. (I got that one from “Leave It to Beaver,” thanks, Ward.)
  • Don’t compare yourself to anyone other than who you were yesterday.
  • You’re the best man for the job of being you.
  • No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
  • Don’t tend someone else’s garden. (A student gave me that one.)
  • When you compete with others, you become bitter. When you compete with yourself, you become better.

The pithier and cornier the expression is, the better it will work because the child is more likely to remember it. It isn’t art you’re looking for here. It’s retention. You want your child to hear it in his mind in 30 minutes and in 30 years.

You’re a good parent for wanting to help your child overcome the challenge. Comparing oneself to others afflicts just about everybody to some degree, and for some, it can be emotionally fatal. Rare is the individual who truly marches to the beat of his own drummer.

But when you do find such a person, he or she will undoubtedly possess an incomparable peace. I can think of few better gifts to bestow upon a child.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question, order his books, or follow him on social media, please visit