We do it all the time. It’s natural and essential to compare things before deciding what to do: what smart phone to buy, what movie to watch, what team to bet on, who to promote, and who to marry. Assessing alternatives before coming to a conclusion makes sense. It’s part of sound decision-making.
So what’s wrong with comparing siblings? It’s how we phrase the conclusion that does the damage. Often the conclusion is crisply summarized into simple labels or adjectives. The assessment process turns into “who’s right, who’s wrong?”, or “who’s been good, who’s been bad?”. When done often enough, certain labels like “who’s better, who’s worse?” or “winner, loser, smart, stupid” stick with the child.
It is also natural for parents to notice one child is more cooperative or better behaved than another. But why take it to the next step by putting a label on the child and broadcasting it to the world? Labels are hard to shake off. The child may be stigmatized and locked into a role.
What’s gained by telling one child that a sibling is better than him at something? Comparing siblings does not encourage better behaviour. It only intensifies jealousy and envy.
Instead, limit your comments to the behaviour. Don’t extrapolate the misbehaviour to a personal trait or characteristic of the child, such as “lazy, energetic, athletic, uncoordinated, clever, stupid”. These label might stick, sometimes for life, as a descriptor of the child.
We are all much more than these labels. We are a myriad of activities, skills, thoughts, knowledge, feelings, and relationships that cannot be simplified into one adjective. We probably shouldn’t judge each other, especially children.
Judgement may become essential, for example to correct improper behaviour, but let’s learn to judge only the behaviour, not the child.