Navigating Your Children’s Unequal Abilities

By: Dr Justin Coulson

It’s an objective fact: one of our children is always going to better than another child at any given activity. One child might be academically sharper.

Or one child may exhibit greater athleticism and coordination. Perhaps it’s nothing to do with talent, but instead it’s looks. One child is simply more handsome or pretty.

Sibling rivalry can often be the outcome of one child being better than another. Competitiveness, bad sportsmanship, cheating, and other ugly spats occur when they go up against one another. In other circumstances a child might become despondent, apathetic, or even passive aggressive when they see a sibling succeed, even when it’s not at their own expense.

Sometimes the inequality in ability is simply a reality of development. Older kids will usually be better at most things than their younger siblings. Other times it might be a question of resources. Sometimes the second or third child is the one who gets better opportunities. And then there’s issues of natural strengths, motivation, peer pressure, and other environmental factors.

As parents we try to minimise these differences. We don’t want to play favourites. Yet many of us know that those differences exist. The trophy cabinet, report card, or popularity of each child are evidence.

More vexing is that our kids recognise the differences. How do we help them to navigate their discrepant capacity in any given domain?

Resist Labelling

Avoid labelling your kids as ‘the sporty one’ or the ‘academic one’. When Ben is told he’s sporty, and when Hamish is told he’s smart, all Ben will hear is that he’s dumb and all Hamish will hear is that he’s uncoordinated. Our kids almost cannot help but infer judgement and comparison from us. They’ll potentially feel like it’s a competition. Even if the comparison is favourable, labels can create a divide and bad feelings between siblings.

Furthermore, labels pigeonhole kids into believing those things about themselves and make them resistant to change.

Rather than labelling, ask your child why they think they did so well. Encourage them to keep doing what lights them up and brings them success and joy.

Be careful about praise and criticism

Psychological evidence on the helpfulness of praise is mixed. Often our praise literally undermines the very attributes we’re trying to build. And our kids may even feel a need to compete for our praise, whether helpful or not. As a result, I tend to discourage parents from praising their kids. There are better forms of feedback to offer.

Rather than praising, try using gratitude. There’s less perceived judgement, and it’s harder for kids to feel a need to compete with one another to be told, “thanks”.

I feel that the best response is to invite children to praise themselves. Ask, ‘What do you think you did well today?’ Teaching them to see themselves in a positive light is the best way to foster motivation, well being and resilience in our kids. This type of conversation is easy to share around, and encourages collaboration and building, rather than unhelpful competition between siblings.

In the same vein, we do best when we avoid criticism. However well-intentioned, constructive criticism that follows a poor performance can damage a child’s self-esteem.

Criticism leads to anger and defiance or, worse, withdrawal. As anxious parents we might then criticise more. We want them to snap out of it, and do well! But more criticism just leads to more anger, and the cycle continues.

In the sibling context, one child may perceive that you have been more critical of her than her brother or sister. This judgement fosters unhealthy competition.

Instead of criticising, we should ask, ‘Did you have fun?’ And then we should say, ‘I love watching you play’. There’s no judgement. There’s no competition. There’s no rivalry. This type of statement is nothing but encouragement and love.

Find Their ‘Islands of Competence’

As parents we have to see past our own expectations and desires for our kids. It’s important that we help our kids find their own strengths. Dr Robert Brooks, faculty member of Harvard Medical School and co-author of ‘Raising Resilient Children’ calls these areas of strength ‘islands of competence’. These islands of competence are where we identify and reinforce each child’s potential for excellence.

Having a strengths focus and creating islands of competence means honouring each child’s individual abilities. Focusing on strengths shifts a child’s perspective too. It’s no longer about what they aren’t good at, but what they are. Using strengths is great for wellbeing as well. It increases resilience and lowers depression, anxiety and stress.

Islands of competence also allow for islands of incompetence. We all have them. But like Riley from Inside Out, when we’re strengths focused, disappointments give our kids a balanced outlook on life, rather than total discouragement.

We all have strengths. And we all have weaknesses. Someone will always be better than us at something, and others will always be worse at that exact same thing. Our goal is not to pit our kids in contest with one another. Rather, it’s to help our children to recognise that dropping the competitive focus, celebrating others’ success, and striving for excellence themselves is a more sure path to joy.

You can find more advice on sibling relationships in 10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know.

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.

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