By Dory CernyUpdated Mar 18, 2021
Photo: @Karlaquiz on Instagram
“Oh, I did that project too,” my daughter Remy said dismissively to her younger sister, who was hard at work at the kitchen table. “But mine was much bigger.” Marlowe didn’t respond, but her shoulders slumped and her head bowed a little. I knew that she was proud of the work she had done (she had been excitedly explaining the project, assigned by the same teacher Remy had a couple of years earlier, to me just a few minutes before), but one comment from her big sister was all that it took to sap her enthusiasm.
My heart ached. This scenario plays out all too often between my two girls. I could tell Marlowe was holding back tears, so I immediately explained to Remy that the project was intended to be smaller and that Marlowe was doing a fantastic job—but she just shrugged and flounced away. It was another interaction gone awry.
At 10, Remy is a classic first-born: overachieving, confident, boisterous. Eight-year-old Marlowe is just as good in school, has her own interests and talents, and excels at things Remy does not. And yet … she consistently downplays her accomplishments and shies away from praise. As the girls have gotten older and their personalities have grown more pronounced, it’s become clear that my younger daughter sometimes gets lost in her big sister’s shadow, so much so that she often cedes the spotlight to Remy even when it’s rightfully hers.
This lopsided dynamic of theirs stresses me out. I worry that after being put in her place so many times by her dominant older sister, Marlowe will be less likely to take risks and more likely to doubt her abilities. As parents, we dream that our kids will bolster each other. So what do you do when the opposite happens?
“It’s very common for a younger sibling to feel like they’re always living in the shadow of that glorious older child,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto parenting expert and counsellor. Why? Because we often set them up to feel that way. Not only do we tend to praise our kids for doing things faster or earlier than their peers (I admit to bragging about the fact that Remy was the only kid in her kindergarten class reading chapter books), but we also inevitably measure younger children against the precedents set by their elder siblings.
“Parents, grandmas, grandpas and everybody else are going to make comparisons between one child and another, and that’s a natural thing,” explains Cassandra White, a child psychologist and director of Rocky Mountain Psychological Services in Calgary. “And kids know that. In fact, they end up doing it themselves.”
For a long time, Marlowe was reluctant to read to us, because she wasn’t as good at it as Remy. Even when she did read aloud, and we told her how great she was doing—and that of course she couldn’t read like her older sister yet but would someday—Marlowe still didn’t believe us. She just kept reading in secret until she decided she was good enough that it stopped being a big deal. (Having grown up hearing about how my older sister could read the newspaper in kindergarten, I found Marlowe’s reluctance to be compared to Remy painfully familiar.)
Schafer and White assure me that my husband and I took the right approach in handling the situation. By putting our older child’s ability into perspective—she’s been reading longer, had more practice, learned from her mistakes, etc.—and explaining that it’s OK for Marlowe to be different and do things at her own pace, we took the pressure off our youngest to live up to anyone’s expectations but her own. “It’s about trying to keep their mind off constantly measuring themselves against their sibling,” says Schafer.
It’s also important for parents, White says, to be aware of how they speak about themselves and their abilities. My kids know that when it comes to homework help, their dad is the one to handle math and French problems, while I’m the go-to for English and history assignments.
We’re the first to admit that we have our own strengths and weaknesses, but we also stress that we’re both smart and capable, too. “It’s good for parents to model having confidence, even if they’re not great at everything,” says White. “We forget that. We want to build kids up so much, and we say, ‘Oh, you’re so great at this,’ but we don’t help them learn that if they’re not fabulous at everything, that’s OK and they’re still a great person.” We have to remind kids that failures are opportunities to learn from mistakes and that the world would be a pretty dull place if we were all good at the same things.
Not being super confident is one thing, but the real trouble starts when kids are so discouraged they avoid doing things because they don’t want to be compared to their older sibling. With younger kids, the behaviour might be fairly tame: Maybe your six-year-old refuses to give up his training wheels after watching his big brother zoom by on his two-wheeler, or your four-year-old declares she’s never going to be able to draw as well as her older sister so she’s not even going to try. As they get older, though, the discouragement is likely to be more pronounced and expressed through bad behaviour or an “I don’t care” attitude that hides insecurity.
I remember actively putting on just such an attitude when I was a kid. Afraid I would never pull off the grades my brainy older sister got, I would self-sabotage, putting off school work and projects until the last minute or doing only the bare minimum to get a decent—but not stellar—mark. By high school, I had resigned myself to always being the less bright sibling and decided to focus on becoming the artsy one instead, the whole time giving the false impression that grades weren’t as important to me as they were to my sister. “That’s a personality thing too,” says White. “Some kids will say, ‘There’s no point in trying, so I’m not going to,’ while others will take it as a challenge to be different and prove they can shine in a different way.”
This is something Toronto mom Celia Schwartz* has observed in her two sons. Her older son, Benjamin, showed an early aptitude for music and was selected as a member of an exclusive choir when he was nine. His younger brother Samuel has an angelic voice and could easily have joined the same choir, but he decided he didn’t want to pursue music.
“He was around seven or eight, and he actually pronounced, ‘That is Ben’s thing. I’m not doing that,’” says Schwartz. Years later, Sam still refuses to have anything to do with music, other than listening to it. “He’ll forget sometimes, and we’ll catch him singing along, even doing harmonies, which is something Ben has to work at,” says Schwartz. “But as soon as he realizes we’re listening, he stops. Even though Ben has been really supportive and encouraged his brother to get into singing too, he won’t consider it.”
Instead, Sam has styled himself as the family athlete, carving out a niche that’s distinct from Ben’s. However, he’s not as confident about his soccer ability as Ben is about his singing, a fact Schwartz finds really frustrating. “Is that a younger sibling thing or is that a personality thing? I can’t really tell,” she says. “Ben is more willing to open himself up to being judged, whereas Sam is not.”
When confidence issues persist, Schafer advises parents to make sure they’re speaking the language of encouragement rather than praise. “Encouragement puts the focus on improvement and stick-to-it-iveness. It’s about focusing on the effort, not the final result,” she explains. This approach takes the competitive element away by shifting the attention to each child as an individual, something that younger siblings might be craving.
If you’re worried your younger child is starting to feel inferior, give her a chance to say so. Even if you don’t hold formal family meetings, take advantage of a quiet moment, when it’s just the two of you, to talk about recent events that might have upset her or how she feels she fits into the family. Talk about whether there’s anything you can do to make her feel more special. “It’s not about comparing your child to everyone else,” says White. “It’s about what do you know about her, and what she knows about herself and that there’s real strength in being who she is.”
While Remy is easy to talk to about this stuff, getting Marlowe to open up is difficult. I try, in the rare one-on-one moments, to get insight into her friendships, what troubles her and what brings her joy, what she thinks about things in our life and whether there’s anything that might make her happier. So far, all we’ve nailed down is that she really wants her own room. (Of course!)
We all know our kids have distinct personalities, but it can be easy in the hustle of everyday life to forget that that means they need different parenting, too. While Remy doesn’t require much help with her confidence, I know it’s still important for us to tell her we’re proud of her and that even if she doesn’t win Wimbledon someday, we’re still going to think she’s pretty neat. Marlowe just needs to hear how great she is, that she’s important, a little more often—especially from her big sister.
I do see signs of hope: One afternoon after a visit to the park, the girls’ grandmother was describing Marlowe’s prowess on the monkey bars and climber, marvelling at her strength. “Marlowe’s stronger than I am!” said Remy, who has at least six inches and 20 pounds on her sister. Marlowe’s mouth quirked into a sassy little smile. “I know,” she said. That’s right, baby girl. Own it.
*Names have been changed
This article was originally published online in October 2017.