This Tips for Parents article authored by Dr. Sylvia Rimm is from a seminar she hosted for Young Scholar families. She discusses that every child influences other children in the family, but because gifted children often attract so much attention and require extra resources, they can cause some special pressures for siblings, parents and even other relatives.
Every child influences other children in the family, but because gifted children often attract so much attention and require extra resources, they can cause some special pressures for siblings, parents and even other relatives. Although parents of gifted children are usually sophisticated enough so that they don’t make overt comparisons between children, the super praise they and others deliver, both directly to the children and indirectly through referential talk about their children, has the impact of comparison. Furthermore, even if no adults make comparisons, children always compare themselves. Every child would like to be the most loved or best at something in the family. That holds for their emotional level, but on a more rational level, most of the time they’re happy to have siblings.
Gifted children who are first in the family often get the most opportunities for attention, but also suffer the greatest risks for dethronement. “Only” children fit in the same category as first children, but because they have no siblings their risk of dethronement is likely to come from school or cousins. First gifted children are after all, usually experiments. Whether they come earlier than expected, or later than hoped for, they are often over-welcomed. If they are also first grandchildren, it adds to the dramatic attention and power they often receive. Children who are empowered too early (as in kings and princesses?) may suffer severely when child number two joins the home or when they enter school and must share attention and feelings of being special with others. If early teachers emphasize gifted children’s negative qualities and don’t give recognition to their unusual giftedness, they often go underground and are either sad, angry or become behavior problems. If a younger sibling surpasses them in skills or attention getting, they may no longer even act gifted. They can experience a true shutdown.
Some sibling combinations are particularly competitive. Two boys close in age often compete, with one being the achiever, the other the underachiever; or one rigid and organized and the other creative and disorganized. While that can also happen with two girls close in age, they seemed to be less overtly competitive. A boy following a perfect sister, or even an older boy with a perfect younger sister, usually struggles to avoid hard work for fear that work will define him as not that smart or cool.
In all of these combinations it can be tempting to label, or as one parent said, “brand” each child differently in the hope of minimizing competition. Thus one becomes the scholar, the other the creative one, a third the jock, and the fourth the social one, etc. Branding children actually causes them to feel more competitive, each assuming they must be best in their area of expertise. The academic often assumes he or she can’t be creative or do sports or be social and that exclusiveness within the label leaves the jock believing that she is not intelligent, the creative one busy exploring drugs for the most creative experience and the social one having the best beer parties.
Attempting to treat all children the same or even equally causes a similar problem in that children feel pressured to measure up to each other and often avoid each other’s domain. Let kids know that you have a whole smart family, all able to do healthful physical activities, think creatively and communicate socially with others helps. Remind them that the family is not a competition but a team whose members can help each other. If each child works hard to develop talents and skills and contributes to supporting the family, and even a little to making our world a better place, each child can be happy and feel fulfilled.
Families teaming up to plan secret surprises for another family member or cheering each other on at a contest, performance or a sports event, helps kids to learn to be cheerleaders for each other. Parents can remind children they can’t expect equality, but that parents will try to be fair to all children, encouraging each of their strengths and helping each with problems, to the extent possible. Sometimes resources can be tight and children will have to take turns having the opportunities they deserve or need.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are all part of the environment that influences children. Respect between adults goes a long way in minimizing competitive feelings and encouraging respect by children. Children are thus more likely to see the adults around them as positive role models. Competition, opposition and disrespect among adult family members foster opposition and rebelliousness in children.
Parent Tips For What Parents Can Do To Create A Whole Smart Family
- Avoid labeling. Although it’s obvious that all children in the family are not genetically alike and that some children may have differences in intellectual, artistic, musical, or physical abilities, it is also obvious that family competition seems to encourage each child in the family to seek special attention that is different from that of the other children. When parents emphasize their children’s differences, it seems to label them and limit their confidence in almost all other areas.
- Prioritize education as first. It’s important for parents to consider all their children intelligent even if one seems a bit more intelligent in some ways than the others. Specifically, encourage them to take on difficult tasks that they aren’t as good at as their siblings, so they know they can improve even when things are difficult. Mastering difficult tasks builds confidence.
- Consider both parents’ intelligence. When parents consider each other to be intelligent, their children have high regard for both. Regardless of which parent a child identifies with, they’ll automatically consider themselves smart.
- Sibling rivalry always affects children’s achievement. Children tend to easily assume that their achievement appears more impressive if their brothers and sisters performance is not as good. Explain to your children that they have a “whole smart family” and that achievement by one child doesn’t limit achievement by the others. I suggest that children should be encouraged to admit their feelings of jealousy. Most children have them. They learn to handle these feelings better by accepting the challenge of openly admiring their sisters or brothers. That seems to help everyone minimize the “put-downs.”
- If your children put each other down, don’t take sides at the time. However, you should communicate your concern privately to the one who is doing the “putting down.” Tell your child you’ll be noticing when he or she is helpful and supportive to a sibling. There’s a much better chance of improved behavior if you don’t correct the child in front of siblings.
- Build positive and cooperative relationships. A token reward system can be used temporarily to reinforce children for their cooperative behavior. That works well particularly when siblings are required to spend a great amount of time together, for example, during summer vacation or a long car ride. By dividing the day into two or three sections, children can receive a point for each time period of cooperative behavior. Early morning to noon might be one section of the day, afternoon to evening meal could be a second section, and the evening meal to bedtime could be a third section. Siblings can receive a point if both children are being nice to each other. That encourages their cooperation. The goal is to accumulate a small number of points (10 to 15) toward an activity that both children can participate in, like going out for pizza, seeing a movie, or renting a special video. You’ll know that your program has been effective when one child teases and the other one says that it doesn’t bother them because he or she knew it was all in fun.
- Use surprise planning. When one parents gets the children together to plan a surprise for the other parent or for a third child, then the children get involved in cooperative planning and feel closer. An alliance with a positive goal builds unity. The secrets of gift giving, surprises, and parties seem to unite brothers and sisters and diminish arguing. Planning something special for a family member, neighbor, or friend encourages a sense of togetherness that comes from joint efforts. Parents can effectively use cooperative strategies frequently to build sibling closeness within the family.
- Don’t even try for equal. Tell children from the start that you’ll try to be fair to all, but fair isn’t equal. They have some similarities and differences and you as parents will always try to provide fairly for their special talents and needs.