Sometimes it’s hard to watch siblings say mean things to each other. One common thing I have observed in my own kids comparing themselves to each other. It is inevitable that one sibling feels the need to put down the other sibling. Over at Today’s Parent, there is a post about this very topic and what we can do as parents.
“Oh, I did that project too,” my daughter Remy said dismissively to her younger sister, who was hard at work at the kitchen table. “But mine was much bigger.” Marlowe didn’t respond, but her shoulders slumped and her head bowed a little. I knew that she was proud of the work she had done (she had been excitedly explaining the project, assigned by the same teacher Remy had a couple of years earlier, to me just a few minutes before), but one comment from her big sister was all that it took to sap her enthusiasm.
My heart ached. This scenario plays out all too often between my two girls. I could tell Marlowe was holding back tears, so I immediately explained to Remy that the project was intended to be smaller and that Marlowe was doing a fantastic job—but she just shrugged and flounced away. It was another interaction gone awry.
I hate this one and I have seen it. The older child is only a couple of years removed from doing the EXACT same thing their younger sibling is doing and immediately feels the need to put them down in some way.
This lopsided dynamic of theirs stresses me out. I worry that after being put in her place so many times by her dominant older sister, Marlowe will be less likely to take risks and more likely to doubt her abilities. As parents, we dream that our kids will bolster each other. So what do you do when the opposite happens?
The danger of comparing siblings
“It’s very common for a younger sibling to feel like they’re always living in the shadow of that glorious older child,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto parenting expert and counsellor. Why? Because we often set them up to feel that way. Not only do we tend to praise our kids for doing things faster or earlier than their peers (I admit to bragging about the fact that Remy was the only kid in her kindergarten class reading chapter books), but we also inevitably measure younger children against the precedents set by their elder siblings.
So that’s something to be careful of. It’s not that we should not be proud of what our children accomplish, it ‘s that we need to be very careful about what we are praising.
Schafer and White assure me that my husband and I took the right approach in handling the situation. By putting our older child’s ability into perspective—she’s been reading longer, had more practice, learned from her mistakes, etc.—and explaining that it’s OK for Marlowe to be different and do things at her own pace, we took the pressure off our youngest to live up to anyone’s expectations but her own. “It’s about trying to keep their mind off constantly measuring themselves against their sibling,” says Schafer.
Trying to refocus on what each child feels they are capable of doing and how they are progressing is far more important than meeting the standard set by a sibling.
The importance of being different
Not being super confident is one thing, but the real trouble starts when kids are so discouraged they avoid doing things because they don’t want to be compared to their older sibling. With younger kids, the behaviour might be fairly tame: Maybe your six-year-old refuses to give up his training wheels after watching his big brother zoom by on his two-wheeler, or your four-year-old declares she’s never going to be able to draw as well as her older sister so she’s not even going to try. As they get older, though, the discouragement is likely to be more pronounced and expressed through bad behaviour or an “I don’t care” attitude that hides insecurity.
This is a helpful insight. Kids learn to mask what’s really bothering them.
I remember actively putting on just such an attitude when I was a kid. Afraid I would never pull off the grades my brainy older sister got, I would self-sabotage, putting off school work and projects until the last minute or doing only the bare minimum to get a decent—but not stellar—mark. By high school, I had resigned myself to always being the less bright sibling and decided to focus on becoming the artsy one instead, the whole time giving the false impression that grades weren’t as important to me as they were to my sister. “That’s a personality thing too,” says White. “Some kids will say, ‘There’s no point in trying, so I’m not going to,’ while others will take it as a challenge to be different and prove they can shine in a different way.”
This is something Toronto mom Celia Schwartz* has observed in her two sons. Her older son, Benjamin, showed an early aptitude for music and was selected as a member of an exclusive choir when he was nine. His younger brother Samuel has an angelic voice and could easily have joined the same choir, but he decided he didn’t want to pursue music.
“He was around seven or eight, and he actually pronounced, ‘That is Ben’s thing. I’m not doing that,’” says Schwartz. Years later, Sam still refuses to have anything to do with music, other than listening to it. “He’ll forget sometimes, and we’ll catch him singing along, even doing harmonies, which is something Ben has to work at,” says Schwartz. “But as soon as he realizes we’re listening, he stops. Even though Ben has been really supportive and encouraged his brother to get into singing too, he won’t consider it.”
Instead, Sam has styled himself as the family athlete, carving out a niche that’s distinct from Ben’s. However, he’s not as confident about his soccer ability as Ben is about his singing, a fact Schwartz finds really frustrating. “Is that a younger sibling thing or is that a personality thing? I can’t really tell,” she says. “Ben is more willing to open himself up to being judged, whereas Sam is not.”
The power of pride
When confidence issues persist, Schafer advises parents to make sure they’re speaking the language of encouragement rather than praise. “Encouragement puts the focus on improvement and stick-to-it-iveness. It’s about focusing on the effort, not the final result,” she explains. This approach takes the competitive element away by shifting the attention to each child as an individual, something that younger siblings might be craving.
I’ll admit I’m probably not as careful about this. There is a significant difference between encouragement and praise.
I do see signs of hope: One afternoon after a visit to the park, the girls’ grandmother was describing Marlowe’s prowess on the monkey bars and climber, marvelling at her strength. “Marlowe’s stronger than I am!” said Remy, who has at least six inches and 20 pounds on her sister. Marlowe’s mouth quirked into a sassy little smile. “I know,” she said. That’s right, baby girl. Own it.
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