BYU study finds negative academic outcomes from comparing children


A parent’s belief about his or her child has a greater impact on the offspring’s life than many might think, researchers out of Brigham Young University recently found.

Researchers looked at how parents’ opinions of their children — in comparison to siblings — affects their children’s behavior in the future.

“It started off with a question about what makes siblings different,” said Alexander C. Jensen, PhD in developmental psychology at Brigham Young University and lead author of the study.

As they started to look at that question, they recognized that parents’ beliefs about a specific child — not just their actual parenting — have an impact on who that child becomes.

The study looked at the academic achievement of 388 teenage first- and second-born siblings and their parents. They came from 17 school districts in a state located in the northeastern part of the United States.

“In the data parents were asked, ‘Who is more competent academically?’ ” Dr. Jensen said. Even when achievement was similar between the two children, the majority of parents thought that their firstborn child was more competent academically, with one exception — if the older sibling was a boy and the younger sibling was a girl.

“What’s interesting about that is when you compare their grades — although not a perfect test — and you look at two brothers or two sisters, even though the parent tends to say the older child is more competent, the older kids are not doing better, per se, except in the case of the firstborn being a boy, and the secondborn being a girl.”

One reason might be because the older children are doing things appropriate to their age, which happens to be more developed due to being older.

“But parents’ beliefs about who is more competent aren’t being influenced by who is doing better in school,” he said.

For whatever the reason, parents’ beliefs about differences in siblings were not influenced by past grades.

“It is possible that parents have sort of formed these beliefs early on from when children were little, and maybe some of those beliefs don’t change a lot,” he said.

Although the reasons might vary as to why, Dr. Jensen asked, “if parents have that perception or that comparison of who is more competent, is that linked to future differences in doing better?”

After controlling for differences, researchers found that parents’ beliefs about who is more competent is influencing a child’s achievement in the future. Children whom parents believed were smarter tended to do better academically in the future, while the child whom parents believed to be less capable tended to do worse in the future.

Although it wasn’t a huge difference from one year to the next, over time those differences add up, and children become very different from each other.

Because it is natural to notice differences of skills and abilities in children, it is important for parents to refrain from vocally comparing their children.

Using the example of a parent comparing their children’s ACT academic testing scores, Dr. Jensen spoke of the pressure children might feel if parents are constantly comparing them to an older sibling. After a period of time, children might start to believe they aren’t as smart and their performance declines.

“When parents make those vocal comparisons, I think it is harmful to kids,” Dr. Jensen said. “Siblings are going to compare themselves enough as it is, they don’t need their parents to add to it.”

Recognizing that comparison is going to happen in life — no one can avoid that — Dr. Jensen encouraged parents to watch what they say around their children and try to focus on positives.

Rather than saying things like, “Why aren’t you like your sister?” or “Why aren’t you like your brother?” Dr. Jensen encouraged parents to look for individual strengths within each of their children.

“We are going to mess up at this, it doesn’t mean we are bad people,” he said. “Just try to do your best. We should be striving to improve, but don’t berate yourself when you fall short.”

By recognizing what they are saying, parents are more able to set their children up for success, no matter where they fall in the birth order in their home.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology. The research was funded by grants (R01-HD32336 and R01-HD29409) from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

[email protected] @marianne_holman

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