Our Kids Live In A Hyper-Competitive, Comparison-Obsessed Culture Amplified By Social Media
The note from the loving parent of a potential summer camper was heartfelt and expressed deep concern about a struggling teenager:
“Being a good guitar player is really important to my son’s self-esteem–so I’m worried about him being placed in a group with a better player. Can we talk about this?”
It took me a few minutes to realize that he was hoping that we would engineer the rock band groups so that his son could be the “best” player.
Outside observers might conclude that this parent created an even bigger gap in his child’s self-worth by trying to engineer his self-esteem. Ultimately, this kind of engineering, though well-meaning, feeds the very cause of shame and anxiety – the idea that self-worth comes from comparing ourselves to others.
I sympathized deeply with the pain, struggle, and confusion that would push a parent to make such a request. Especially because the request, even if we would honor it (which we wouldn’t), would still leave a better guitar player in the very next studio, still exposing the child to the pain of comparison.
In fact, I knew that even if a kid does happen to be the most proficient teen player in the camp in any one area (playing lead guitar, for example), they are unlikely to also be the most skilled performer, rhythm guitarist, songwriter, or arranger…and regardless of their skill level, the success of a band performance depends on the chemistry and work ethic of an entire group, no matter how good one player might be.
In other words, the game of trying to feel good about yourself by being better than others is a losing proposition; there are literally an infinite number of ways to “come up short”.
If self-esteem comes from being better than others, in the long run we are all DOOMED to low self-worth!
Our Kids Live In A Hyper-Competitive, Comparison-Obsessed Culture Amplified By Social Media
This student did not end up in our rock and roll summer camp, after we politely said that we could not guarantee the sort of situation the parent was looking for. But as a music school and summer camp owner and the parent of several kids, I have noticed issues about the stress of external comparisons coming up more and more.
Our hyper-competitive culture has always focused more on external comparisons than on inner character. And for our kids, this comparison is amplified by social media, which creates two major new sources of comparison:
1. The “I’m just not as good as [somebody on the planet]” Syndrome
Kids are comparing themselves with the curated social media feeds of savants and professionals, and are feeling bad about themselves when they aren’t as good.
As a teenager before social media, I felt skilled and competent when I won first place in Idaho in a math competition. It didn’t occur to me that my performance might have been 20th place in Manhattan, or 10,000th place worldwide. The only public mention of my exploit came in a “local boy does good” article in the town paper. I was “the kid who was good at math.”
That opportunity to explore an interest or gift and be “the kid” in a class or community has changed. Now, comparisons to world class performers are ubiquitous on social media.
For example, a few weeks ago my daughter looked up from her sketchbook of beautiful drawings and said “I’m so discouraged–I’ll never be as good as (Famous Young Artist On The Internet).” Of course, I knew that the famous artist had many more thousands of hours of practice than my daughter, and a unique innate talent. The other artist might be a great source of inspiration or of technical information, but to build her own creative skills, my daughter doesn’t need to make a drawing that looks like a certain expression of somebody else’s vision and skills–she just needs hours and hours of exploring materials without judgement, and she needs practice completing her own works.
Kids–and in fact, all of us–need to be free to explore and create without judgement in order to build skills and reach their own potential. Judging your explorations against the finished work of others inhibits this freedom.
One of my favorite examples of what happens when people create without focusing on comparisons and outcomes is the story behind a famous Beatles song. One day, when Paul McCartney wrote a silly song about breakfast, he luckily did not judge the idea by the standard of whether it was a hit song–because clearly it wasn’t. He allowed himself to play, and wrote these actual lyrics:
Have an omelette with some Muenster cheese
Put your dishes in the wash bin please
So I can clean the scrambled eggs
It’s a good thing he wasn’t operating under the illusion that songwriters only write perfect words…because he finished the song. And a few months later, he thought of different lyrics:
All my troubles seemed so far away
“Yesterday” has been covered over 2,000 times by other bands, and wasn’t just a number one hit in the US and many other countries–it was selected as #1 song of the 20th Century by the BBC, Rolling Stone, and MTV. And it would never have happened without a judgment-free creative space!
2. The “I’m just not as good as [all my friends]” Syndrome
Kids are also comparing themselves with the curated social media feeds of friends and acquaintances, and are feeling bad about themselves when they aren’t as good.
Our kids don’t just face constant self-comparisons with the most beautiful, gifted, skilled and accomplished kids on the planet. They also face constant comparisons with the curated and idealized versions of people whom they know.
This is a problem because there is a mismatch between how our kids actually experience reality (messy, variable, imperfect and emotional) and how it seems other kids might be experiencing reality (full of friends, exciting social activities, exotic locations, or even shredding guitar solos.)
The bad days, lonely moments, hours of practice, and the unflattering pictures are all left out of these carefully curated feeds, and kids are left feeling like they are the only ones who are living imperfect lives!
Maybe that’s why the British Royal Society for Public Health reports that use of social media is linked with increased anxiety and depression, that nine out of ten teenage girls report being dissatisfied with their body, and that a staggering seven out of ten young adults say they would consider cosmetic surgery.
For the record, studies clearly show that all the other kids are also not living perfect lives!
To Help Kids Have Self-Esteem, Teach Them To Judge Themselves By Their Effort And Progress
It’s easy to hate on “snowplow parents”–but we all want to help our kids be successful and happy, and we all want to help them when we see them suffering from anxiety or self-doubt.
The truth is, we can’t prevent comparison based-messages from society getting to our kids. Our society will tell them over and over and over again that comparisons relate to their inner worth. “What grade did you get?” “What college are you going to?” “Did you get to play a solo?” “How many likes did your post get?” “What kind of clothes are you wearing?”
And if a kid whose self-worth is based on comparison or external praise hears these messages, they will probably feel bad!
Encouraging them to limit social media might help, but the only true armor has to happen WITHIN the kid–when they learn to judge themselves for their values and efforts, not for what anyone else thinks of them or how they seem to compare with others.
It can be hard as a parent not to fall into the same trap–but there are some fundamental steps that we can take as parents to help.
The first is to blow the underlying comparison structure into the open, by discussing with our kids the reality that our society and media do stress comparison as a default.
There are also scientifically proven parenting habits that engender true inner self-esteem in kids. After a bunch of research on these habits, I decided that a list from The Biglife Journal is a great place to start. I recommend checking out their blog post, but here are five scientifically supported bullet points:
1. Choices and chores. Give your kids choices (so they can be in charge of themselves) and responsibilities (yes, chores have a massive correlation to self-esteem in kids.)
2. Sincere and specific praise. Give sincere and specific praise (like “I loved your solo over the second bridge” or “This room has obviously been cleaned up”) as opposed to general praise (like “You’re so talented” or “You’re awesome”).
3. Let kids fail. Let children fail–and if they do, reassure them of how much you love them.
4. Don’t be mean or disrespectful. Avoid harsh or angry criticism and personal attacks.
5. Encourage growth and exploration. Give them opportunities to explore and build on their interests and strengths–like going to rock and roll camp!
And don’t forget the famous words of John Wooden, who taught:
“Don’t try to be the best. Just do your best.”
After all–you can’t do better than your best! And the more you and I and our kids focus on that, the better results we will get, inside and outside.
On To Greatness, In Parenting, Music and Life,
Founder, NYC Guitar School
Original Lyrics For Yesterday:
Royal Society For Public Health Study:
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