Gifted and Nongifted Siblings
Parent Question: I fear that the attention and recognition my 13-year-old daughter receives because of her intellectual and academic accomplishments may be damaging to her 10-year-old brother, who struggles in school. Is this a valid concern, and are there ways to ensure that he doesn’t feel inadequate?
Expert Answer: A common misconception maintains that children with a gifted brother or sister have difficulties. The belief holds that the parents bestow attention, praise, and resources on the gifted child to the detriment of the other child, that the children are inevitably competitive, and that the brilliance of the “star” blinds everyone else to the gifts of the “nonstar.” The trouble is—it isn’t true.
Some years ago, Diana Chamrad, Paul Janos, and I conducted a study of 378 sibling pairs, aged eight to 13, in which neither, one, or both of the children were identified as gifted. We expected to find that the nongifted siblings were more anxious and depressed, that they were poorer students (relative to their ability), and that they thought less well of themselves and were negatively disposed toward their brother or sister.
To our surprise, all the groups of pairs looked very much the same. In each group there were children whose adjustment and relationships were far from perfect, but where there were differences between the children, it turned out to be an asset to have a gifted brother or sister.
According to their mothers, the children with a gifted sibling had fewer behavioral problems, and in general they were described with more positive adjectives than the children in pairs with no gifted child. Gifted children described their siblings in a friendlier way, and their mothers confirmed their more amicable relationships. We noted not a single unfavorable difference. Our best guess, based on this study, was that having a gifted sibling was simply a ready excuse for the ordinary wear and tear that brothers and sisters inflict on each other.
Rather than expect problems to happen between your gifted and nongifted children, expect them to get along and to like one another. Take pleasure in their nurturing and appreciation of one another, and treat habitual fighting, if it happens, as misbehavior.
Teach your children that “fair” is not necessarily “the same” and that you will meet each child’s needs and passions as best you can. Replace each child’s shoes, bikes, and computer programs as they are outgrown. This does not usually have to be done for every child at the same time, but things will balance out in the long run.
Make time for companionship, hugs, fun, and time alone with each of your children. They should not have to compete for your attention, affection, or respect. If you spend time chauffeuring one of them to lessons, use the wait time with the other child for a trip to a nearby park or library to practice ball skills or read a special book. At the dinner table, do not let the more verbal child dominate the conversation.
Treasure each child for his or her own quirks and assets. Minimize comparisons. Most families—even families of identical twins—assign one child to be “the smart one,” “the grumpy one,” or “the jock.” By implication, the other child is “dumb,” “sunny,” or “a klutz.” Of course you are proud of your gifted child, but you should be proud of your other child as well.
Do not let one of your children generally be more privileged than the other. For example, do not make one child do the dishes or feed the dog simply because the other has to have time to practice the cello. But do let all of your children have privileges that come with age, like staying up later at night. Create rituals around such milestones for the younger child to look forward to.
Finally, if one child is really struggling with schoolwork, then understand how discouraging the struggle is. Show support by sitting nearby while he or she does homework and by helping with organization. If reading isn’t much fun for this child, read aloud a special book every night that is just for the two of you. Make sure that this child has some activities that he or she loves. You are not making it up to this child for not being a high achiever. You are addressing his or her needs as your child.
—Nancy M. Robinson, PhD
Nancy M. Robinson is professor emerita of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and past director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington.
Siblings without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, rev. ed., by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, Avon, 1998
“Consequences of Having a Gifted Sibling: Myths and Realities,” by Diana L. Chamrad and Nancy M. Robinson, Gifted Child Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3, 1995