Like most parents, I have a treasure trove of favorite sayings. My sons have heard them so many times they can now recite them as readily as they sing their favorite rap lyrics. These adages fit every needed occasion, and I know they’ve made an impact because my sons often parrot these truths back to me.
That’s a good thing, because clearly I’m still a work in progress.
Comparison is the thief of joy.
This quote, attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, was a favorite before I became a mom, and now my sons hear it on repeat. This focus intensified when they entered their fraught middle school years. I consistently remind them, “Someone else will always have more than you or perform better than you, just as someone else will always have less or do worse. Focus on you and your goals, so comparison doesn’t steal your joy.”
As easy as it is for me to dish out this admonishment against comparison, this summer I realized I needed to relearn the lesson myself. My husband and I are casual runners (more like joggers), and while my Instagram stories are often full of the beautiful scenery we pass, I intentionally never posted our times or distances.
I paid attention when others shared theirs, though.
After one particularly lovely run a month ago, I looked at our splits on my watch and immediately started comparing them to other runners we know.
“We need to shave off 20 seconds to run at Franny and Joe’s pace,” I stammered as I caught my breath.
“Would you please stop doing that?” my husband politely asked, quick to point out that my comparisons were stealing his joy. I realized I was doing the same to myself.
Now, as much as possible, I try to ignore those posts on social media and focus instead on the personal benefits I get from running: extra time with my husband, increased physical health, and some much-needed vitamin D.
That focus won’t steal my joy.
Control what you can control.
My oldest son often tells me this lesson has impacted him the most. It’s a mainstay from my days as a high school teacher when I was trying to manage rooms full of unruly teenagers. I couldn’t control if my students would love an assignment or laugh at my dumb jokes, but I could be in charge of the classroom environment and my own enthusiasm.
One recent evening, both sons were experiencing school-related woes. In a completely developmentally appropriate but still highly annoying manner, they grumbled and groaned from the minute they walked in the door. Group members weren’t carrying their weight on assignments. Teachers weren’t there as they prepared for exams. Everyone and everything was annoying.
I discussed options and plans with each of them, asking specifically what they had control over, but their sullen moods and bitter attitudes didn’t improve, affecting me as I went upstairs to bed myself.
As I scrubbed my face a little too hard and slammed the cap back on the toothpaste, I remembered the advice I had just given them. I couldn’t control their reactions, but I could manage my own.
I took a few cleansing breaths, crawled under the covers, and traded my temporary annoyance for a good book.
Do your best and forget the rest.
I like to share this adage on the morning of a big exam. I used to say “You’ve got this!” on their way out the door, but one son told me he prefers when I say “Do your best and forget the rest” because it’s focused on areas he controls.
A few years ago, after years as a writing teacher, I decided to practice what I preached and so I set a goal of submitting my writing to a publication. I toiled over a topic, read and reread, fixed and edited, and bravely hit “send.”
My disappointment was palpable weeks later when I read the rejection email. I had done my best, and it wasn’t good enough.
I eventually tried again with more success, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t often hear the whisper of “you’re not good enough” every time I put myself out there only to receive a “we’re sorry, but” email.
I still always try to do my best, even though forgetting the rest is a work in progress.
You’re loved because of who you are, not what you do.
This is a motto I try to model with actions more than words. I want my sons to know they’re worthy of our love—not because of what grade they get on a test or how many points they score in a game—solely for who they are.
Since leaving my job as a high school English teacher a few years back, I’ve struggled to understand my worth. Yes, I have an advanced degree, but I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.
I scroll through LinkedIn or read my alumni magazines and see what former classmates are up to. Comparison can easily steal my joy in this scenario because while they’re sitting on important boards, leading prestigious companies, and basically changing the world, I’m throwing in another load of laundry, revising an article, responding to some student writing, and sending my sons a Snap of the dog. None of what I do seems exactly life-altering.
Later, though, my sons will burst through the door. Maybe they’ll want to complain about their school day and maybe they’ll want help with some math homework. I might try to pass on some well-earned wisdom, or I might just sit at the table while they have a snack, remembering that in my family, I’m loved for who I am.
And that’s worth more than anything.