Don’t let a sibling corner a market

29 October 2018

Don’t let a sibling corner a market

  • Behaviour
by Michael Grose

Some kids will define themselves with a word or two. “I’m the smart/funny/dumb kid in the family.”

So when they are told by siblings that they are smart, dumb, cute etc, or just reminded through the way they are treated (e.g. by giving responsibility to responsible kids and withholding it from kids who struggle with it), they start to form their “I belong’ statement. That is “I belong in my family because I am the smart kid/the problem child/the helpful child”.

Yes, a child may struggle at school compared to their siblings but he or she may also be creative, generous, sporty, funny and a whole bunch of other characteristics to boot.

The trick to parenting is such kids is not to let them corner the market on any personality trait, characteristic or role in a family.

An eight year old once described himself to me using one word. “Dumb!”
 Actually, he book-ended that with some other words. He said, “I’m the dumb one in my family.”

He’d always been told in subtle ways by his parents that he didn’t quite measure up, and was constantly reminded by his siblings how he was struggling with school. His elder brother felt he was better at most things at his age. His younger sister was starting to overtake him in the academic stakes. Her success was a reminder that he was ‘dumb’. Never mind that her gender gave her a head-start.

Many children fall into the habit of cornering the market on one attribute or characteristic. “I’m the smart/dumb/cute/funny/favoured, sporty/spoilt kid in the family!” Of course, children are the sum of many parts, but their view of the world is very subjective. Children are good observers but lousy interpreters of what others say.

All this happens in latency – the period of life before adolescence. It’s a time when kids are trying work out who they are and how they fit into their various groups. And of course, since their family is the first group they belong to, their place in their family also shapes their role in other groups. That’s why kids’ birth order and family constellation is so powerful. The trick is to not let kids corner the market on any one attribute.

Yes, a child may struggle at school compared to their siblings but he or she may also be creative, generous, sporty, funny and a whole bunch of other characteristics to boot.

Just how you get these notions across to kids is a parenting challenge. Start by not labelling any sibling as the ‘funny’ or ‘smart’ one, or the family clown! Then:

Treat kids uniquely, not equally

Many parents make the mistake of treating siblings equally. You can’t!

Instead treat them in their own special way. Respond to their strengths, and don’t get sucked into focusing on what they can’t do. See them as whole people, not as labels or as kids playing roles. This holds true for special needs kids. See past the disorder to focus on the whole child and all their abilities, interests and quirks.

Treat them as you want them to be, not as they are

Want a child to be responsible? Then give them responsibility (for their toys, packing their own school lunch, feeding the pet) and allow them to mess up and experience what not being responsible feels like. It should feel rotten because they have let others down. ‘I-messages’ work well at these times, as they are non-judgemental. Look ahead realistically at how you want your kids to be (friendly, smart, studious, etc.) and start seeing them through that lens.

You are not wonderful or woeful

Being the wonderful kid is a lousy role to play. It can be so limiting and exhausting to have to constantly live up to the expectations of parents. But that is exactly what wonderful kids often do. Putting kids on the wonderful/great/the good one pedestal is as bad as putting kids in the woeful basket.

Don’t let kids corner the market on one attribute or characteristic

If you have a child who defines him or herself in one or two words, then help them scratch the surface to reveal the full splendour of the gem that lies beneath their single-minded exterior.

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s an award-winning speaker and the author of 12 books for parents including Spoonfed Generation, and the bestselling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It. Michael is a former teacher with 15 years experience, and has 30 years experience in parenting education. He also holds a Master of Educational Studies from Monash University specialising in parenting education.