Effects of Sibling Competition
often wonder why their children are so different from
each other even though they are raised in the very same
family. In addition to genetic differences, competition
among siblings does affect the development of other children
in the family, and may be the most important reason why
children raised in the same way are so different.
second or third children feel inadequate by comparison to a
first sibling and thus search for different areas of expertise.
Parents often reinforce those differences because they want
to encourage self-esteem in each child and also fear that the
second or third child may not be as skilled as the first child.
That process often results in parents labeling their children.
For example, if the first child is considered the "scholar,"
the second child may be referred to as the "creative"
child, the "social" child, or the "athlete."
Those labels may increase the competitiveness within the family
because each child believes he/she should be best in the family
at something. Labeling also causes children to assume they are
not good at whatever another sibling is best at. So the scholars
may assume they can't be creative, and the creative children
may give up on academics because they believe they can't achieve
as good grades as their sibling.
in the same family are surely different from each other
but also have much in common. If the children study and
do homework, it is likely they will all be reasonably
good students. Indeed, families should encourage their
children to know they can have a whole smart family. Children
can also be physically fit, although they may surely choose
different sports or activities to exercise their fitness.
Even social skills can be learned,
and although some children may enjoy friends more than
others, labeling your children as the social ones has
the impact of directing them to be the best partiers,
and you will surely regret that label by their teenage
children are labeled best in a domain, they often do their best
to prevent another sibling from encroaching on their domain.
They feel ownership and are threatened by a sister or brother
who is as good in math or better in sports. Sometimes they even
beg their parent not to let their siblings participate in their
activities. It would be better to talk to your child about the
jealousy they feel than to prevent another sibling from joining
a particular activity. Sometimes you may find your children
have little confidence in their abilities; thus, you may decide
to protect that child's domain. That would be particularly so
if you have one child in the family who seems best at everything
Anne Caroles, Psychologist*
Anne Caroles was referred to as the "brain" in her
family. Her sister was called the "beauty." As a
teenager, Anne viewed herself as "ugly" and believed
she would never be attractive to anyone. Her studies became
a hiding place for her. Now she looks back at her pictures
and realizes she was quite normal looking.
from See Jane Win by Sylvia B. Rimm (1999, Crown Publishing.)
It is not coincidental that two sisters or brothers close
in age seem to be so different from each other. If one is
neat, the other is often sloppy. If one is quiet, the other
is often noisy. Children are attracted to being different
than their siblings so they can receive their own special
attention from their parents. Some differences are not worrisome;
however, important differences, such as achievement and underachievement
or honesty and dishonesty, will cause parents to find they
have serious sibling problems on their hands.
Sibling Competition Causes Underachievement
There are specific sibling combinations that predispose
children toward underachievement. These particular combinations
are inherently more competitive than usual, and one or
more of the siblings are disadvantaged by this competition.
Many families learn to minimize minor sibling rivalry
or at least assist siblings in dealing with their competitiveness.
However, with these special combinations, the parenting
job is extremely challenging.
The combinations that seem unusually
difficult include: very close-aged, same-gender siblings,
siblings of an extremely gifted child, and a family
of children with one who is considerably younger.
Close-Aged, Same-Gender Children
Judge Edna Conway’s success seemed
to grow in contrast to her older sister’s lack
of success. No challenge was too difficult for Edna.
She would quietly assess each obstacle, admit that perhaps
it might be difficult, and then decide it wouldn’t
be impossible. Her conclusion typically was, "I
think I can do that—I just have to keep going."
Edna’s sister, in stark contrast, was negative
about almost everything, was pessimistic, complained
about any chore, and completed very little of what she
began. Edna explained, "I felt more like an oldest
or only child and always felt ready to step out on my
own." Edna not only graduated college and law school,
but was also elected to a judgeship. Her sister dropped
out of college and struggled with finding any positive
from See Jane Win, by Sylvia B. Rimm (1999, Crown Publishing)
Where two close-aged, same-gender siblings
are treated similarly, both children are likely to feel more
competitive pressure. Because they are expected to act the
same, the age difference typically puts stress on the younger
one to keep up with the older one, causing the younger one
to feel inadequate. The older one may also feel some frustration
because he doesn’t receive special privileges that go
with age. Because the older sibling usually outperforms the
younger, he will appear confident. Both siblings are also
likely to compete for a close relationship with the same-gender
or most powerful parent. Recognizing individuality by acknowledging
privileges of age and differences in interests and abilities
relieves some of the competitive pressures. However, parents
can expect to be frustrated as they try to deal with two competitive
brothers or two hostile sisters who should be such good company
for each other.
a Very Talented Oldest Child
the first child exhibits unusual talent, she is likely
to be the recipient of special parent and school attention,
unusual educational opportunities, and a multitude of
honors and awards. This child thus becomes the pace-setter
for the siblings who follow. High standards are set,
and younger siblings believe that in order to earn equal
recognition they must achieve a similar level of success.
if your children are very capable, they are likely to
view such accomplishment as quite impossible and may
feel great pressure. Because they want to establish
an individual and respectable place in the family, and
because they view themselves as unlikely to compete
successfully, they may select a different and sometimes
opposite direction for achievement and attention. If
the family can encourage their activities and help them
to understand their competitive feelings, the child
may develop both competence and confidence.
the oldest sibling’s accomplishments are significant,
it’s often difficult to convince younger children
of their own talent. In such cases they may resort to
underachievement for attention seeking. Their failures
and behavior problems may thus become their route to
family recognition. They manipulate family members to
attend to their problems, thus setting an underachieving
cycle in motion.
"Baby" of the Family
sibling combination in which the youngest is labeled
the "baby of the family" may also initiate
underachievement. The youngest child is by no means
always an underachiever. As a matter of fact, research
on eminence finds youngest children to be second only
to oldest children as achievers. However, if youngest
children are either over-indulged or overempowered by
older siblings, particularly when they are much younger
than the others, they may likely be underachievers.
children may treat their youngest siblings almost as
toy dolls and do so much for them that the younger ones
are prevented from developing their own ideas and activities.
In this case they become dependent on the positive feedback
from older siblings and may become fearful of assuming
responsibilities or initiating creative activities.
The youngest child may see little likelihood of becoming
as competent and successful as older siblings, and besides,
it’s much easier to get help from the collection
of "big" people around them.
Parents Can Do to Create
A Whole Smart Family
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’s
also obvious that family competition seems to encourage each
child in the family to seek special attention. When parents
label their children, it limits their confidence in almost all
education as first. It’s important for
parents to consider all their children intelligent even if
one seems a bit more intelligent than the others. When parents
expect all their children to be smart and value challenge,
the children are actually less competitive with each other.
both parents intelligent.
When parents consider each other to be intelligent, their
children have high regard for both. Regardless of which parent
children identify with, they automatically consider themselves
Sandra Calvin, Engineer*
Dr. Sandra Calvin’s family provides an excellent prototype
of how parents can raise a whole smart family. Although there
were five children in the family, all went to college and all
Sandra’s parents consi-dered all the
kids to be smart, including her brother, who had a learn-ing
disability. Being smart and hardworking were both assumed
and emphasized. The children varied in their musical and athletic
skills and activities, but all participated in both. The whole
family was included whether they were going to a concert or
a basketball game. Music, science, camping, and sports were
part of growing up in their enriched family environment. It
was just assumed that all would continue their education beyond
high school, and indeed they all did.
from See Jane Win by Sylvia B. Rimm (1999, Crown Publishing.)
To Be a Whole Smart Family
Cheer for your siblings and they'll cheer for you.
You may be second best in your family but might be
best if you were in other families.
Even if you're best in your family, you might be second
best compared to another family.
Doing the best you can do is more important than being
best in the family.
Learn to enjoy your experiences and improvement without
continually comparing yourself to your siblings.
and attitude count.
for Reducing Sibling Rivalry*
rivalry is not likely to ever be eliminated, nor should it be.
If there are no brother-sister struggles in your family, you
may assume that one child is giving orders and the other accepting
those orders. Children should have differences and should be
assertive enough to express and even argue these differences.
Thus, some sibling quarrels and fighting are a healthy indication
that none of the children are completely submissive.
try to mediate or determine which child is to blame.
The attention you give to the rivalry usually serves to reward
the fighting behavior. That is, each child tries to get the
parents on his or her side. Your mediations are likely to
increase the rivalry. Parents should first encourage their
children to work things out themselves.
set limits for reasonable noise levels or aggressive behaviors.
Reserve the option of separating the children for fifteen
minutes or half an hour if they’re not able to solve
their problem. Any two different rooms will do. They will
soon discover it’s better to discuss their differences
than be separated.
to 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 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.
cooperative sibling behavior by using surprise planning.
When one parent 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.
rivalry almost 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 it's nice to
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 any 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 and
minimizes the put-downs.
take sides when your children put each other down.
However, you should communicate your concern privately to
the one who is doing the putting down. There's a much better
chance of improved behavior if you don't correct the child
in front of siblings.
appoint your achiever to the role of tutor for your underachiever.
It will serve only as a daily put-down for the other. The
underachiever may not understand or be able to express those
feelings. Children often say they appreciate the help, but
"it makes me feel dumb."
from Learning Leads Q-Cards, Parent
Pointers, by Sylvia Rimm (1990, Apple Publishing Co.)
by Sylvia B. Rimm, President, Educational Assessment Service,
Inc., Watertown, WI. All rights reserved. This publication,
or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without
written permission of the author.