Growing up, I knew this girl named Lisa.
We met up in things like swim lessons, Girl Guides, and part-time job training.
I didn’t go to school with her, but I knew she was super smart.
Because her mother told my mother. Who would update me.
She went to law school and is now married with career and kids.
Lisa had a younger brother.
That by all accounts did just fine.
But I wouldn’t know.
Because her mother never said anything to my mother about him.
Growing up, I did quite well at stuff.
My younger brother did better.
I got an over 90% average in high school. My brother got over 95%.
I made Youth Nationals for swimming. My brother made Provincial Tour Team and was briefly ranked 7th nationally for his event.
When it came time to go to university, despite being accepted into a top-ranked combined BA/BSc program, I opted for a(n equally top-ranked) Journalism Degree…
… A choice which prompted a friend’s father to comment in passing (in such a way that it came back to me) about what a “waste” that was, because I’d “been so smart”.
My brother did a combined BSc/BEng degree.
I have an M.A. He has a PhD. He’s now the third generation of engineers in our family.
The grandparents are already wondering if the fourth will be my youngest daughter or his son.
There are any number of qualifiers and counterpoints I could make to each of the above descriptions. But both, as written without further context, are factual.
In my mid-20s, one night I randomly ran into Lisa’s younger brother in a pub.
After some polite “I vaguely know you” chit-chat, we ended up bonding over being the under-achievers in our family.
For anyone who read my recent #1000Speak Post on listening – I remember this as one of those wonderful conversations where I both got and gave.
We were both successful at the time. And had always been successful.
We just weren’t our siblings.
My encounter with Lisa’s brother is almost family legend by this point.
After running into Lisa’s brother, I mentioned the conversation to my mother.
I figured we were years beyond this point and, well, she’d know what I was talking about, right?
Not so much.
Funniest and most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard!
How could either of us have EVER thought we were under-achievers?
That we had been compared to our siblings and been somehow found wanting?
I sincerely think – given the 10-years-plus this has now been coming up in conversation for moments of random positive affirmation – that she had no idea I’d ever felt that way.
I have always known my parents are proud of me.
But what I’m talking about here is the years worth of passing comments about how girl x is doing better than me in y and watching and hearing their reactions to my brother excelling (in my eyes, beyond me).
I don’t think anything they ever said was to make me feel bad.
But for me to have found myself having that talk one night in a pub in my mid-twenties?
I obviously felt that way – at least on some level.
I suspect at times their comments were to push me to do things they knew I was capable of doing.
And I certainly can’t fault them for being proud of my brother.
Indeed, I’m sure I can chalk some of these memories up to simple sibling rivalry.
But I remember how I felt.
So fast-forward to this past Wednesday and me as the parent.
Our two daughters are both in swimming lessons and it was report card day.
My 5-year-old is a great swimmer and now in the highest level of preschool swim lessons in the city (she’s a Whale!).
It was the first session of swimming lessons my 3-year-old had ever done (Sea Otter!).
My 5-year-old languished for well over a year in Sea Otter because she couldn’t float on her own. She also spent the first half of her first session crying about not wanting to get into the COLD water with the BOY teacher, and the second half playing with a bucket on deck.
My 3-year-old passed on the first try. She’s floating by herself.
My 5-year-old didn’t pass Whale.
The parental cop-out here would be to say that kids at that age don’t notice these things.
That would be a lie.
My youngest kept asking to see her “sticker” well after she’d figured out that her sister hadn’t gotten one and that this upset her.
I made an effort to show that I was equally proud of both my kids. I read out what the instructor had written on my eldest’s card about how much she had improved. I told my youngest how proud I was of her. I reminded my eldest about how she passed Crocodile on the first try and explained that she was in the top-level, so that was tough, and that not passing didn’t mean she wasn’t a good swimmer. It just meant she had to keep working at certain skills.
I hope the message got through that it wasn’t a contest, but I’m not convinced. This was the first time my eldest has ever been concerned about not passing.
So as the parent, I found myself playing down my youngest’s achievement in front of them both. I then made a point later when I was putting my youngest to bed of telling her how proud I was.
Because I’m thrilled. Posted it to Facebook! thrilled. And if I’m being honest? I felt a little parentally-robbed that I couldn’t be quite as publicly proud as I wanted to be for fear of hurting my eldest’s feelings. And I felt my youngest was robbed of the moment my eldest got with a similar achievement.
But then I remember how I felt in those situations – and am torn.
If you are a parent of multiple kids how do you handle this? How do you – or do you – avoid making one feel bad if the other was successful and the other wasn’t? And parental bragging to other parents – do you do it? Have you been on the receiving end? How does it impact you?
Brilliant post and an issue I constantly think about now that we have 2 young boys that will surely compete and strive for success. Wish I had insight, but am with you looking for ideas.
Thanks for commenting and do share any tips you should find. The scenario above with my kids was hard because I was sincerely happy with how both of them did – I didn’t expect my eldest to pass, but knew she was improving. But I am thrilled my youngest picked the skills up so quickly. I don’t want her to ever think she should downplay her achievements – but there I was doing it! Argh!
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Well you certainly are ahead on the parenting curve than me (my boys are almost 3 & 1). One thing that we did start doing for our 3yr after any “challenging” experience is to tell him that he got a little stronger that day (it’s a blog post I did the other week in more detail). This helps his confidence big time. I can see us using this tactic for both boys in both positive and challenging situations because truly both of your girls did get a little stronger that day both in ability and character. I don’t know – maybe I’m still a naive parent with young ones, but that’s where we probably stand today. That’s wonderful about you little one’s success! You oldest really is challenged in a bigger way, which only shows her little sis that it’s ok to fail because it makes you stronger for next time. Best to you.
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I think I, at least in part, managed to convinced my 5-year-old, that she did well. She KNOWS she’s a good swimmer, and she knows she’s improving. But I know, from watching her, that it hurt to see her sister get a sticker when she didn’t. That said, I know you can’t “win” all the time, and that is also a valuable lesson. I just want to figure out my approach to dealing with all this stuff early on so as to avoid unintentionally making either of them fell less than who they are because of any given moment – while also being able to celebrate success when it happens.
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I admire you for trying to figure this out so early. It will no doubt pay off and your girls will thrive no matter what (I relate to your earlier parallel story about distant friends & sibling success vs your own)
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This is a great post. It is so important for each child to know that they are loved for who they are and not what they have achieved. Being aware of the possiblities of your words being misintrepreted goes a long way to avoiding comparisons. Even with adult children, the issue remains. I try and praise my children when I am alone with them so no child hears what I am saying about the other child. But parents still don’t have control over how a message is received. So we can only try hard and not beat ourselves up if miscommunication occurs. Here is a link to a post I wrote about making kids feel good whatever they have achieved.
I don’t know that I ever equated being loved with achievement – I just know that I grew up with a sense of what I THOUGHT my parents expected and a healthy fear about letting them down – which I suppose ties back to love – which is what makes the entire thing that is parenting so challenging.
I agree that we don’t have control over how our messages are received. We can control how/where we deliver them though – so I appreciate the advice on that front.
As far as my kids feeling good whatever they have achieved, here I get a bit torn because I want to push them to excel where I know they can. So the challenge there is to sincerely praise when I know they have done their best, and figure out how to push them when I know they haven’t WITHOUT making them feel their success is tied to anything other than, well, knowing they have successfully done the best they could do at whatever it is they are currently doing.
I’m kind of a realist when it came to parenting. My kids are grown now so take this with a grain of salt. I had four kids in four years so they were very close together, and they all excelled at *something* but different things, and some things couldn’t be helped… for example, my son was taller than his older sister, and she hated that. Now she the oldest and the shortest. What can you do? Can’t stop the other kids from growing, right? But I was a busy single mom and my answer was this: “Life isn’t fair. Learn it now and you won’t be disappointed later when you expect it to be.” Because life isn’t fair, and your kids will always be in competition one way or another whether you want them to be or not, and one will be better than the other at *something* even if it’s by a fraction. And to try and make it even for them is to set up an unrealistic playing field. Because in life, there will always be someone better than they are unless they work to be the best at something. If you want to be less blunt than I was, you can coach it like this, “Yes, your sister is better at you in this, but you’re better at this other thing than she is. No two people are the same, and you shouldn’t expect them to be.” or something like that.
Also, I got through to my kids that my proudness wasn’t based on their achievements. I told them, often, that I was proud of them no matter what. I made a conscious effort to not praise them for what they did, but for who they were. If that makes sense. Like, I’d randomly walk up to them and just hug them and say, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” for no particular reason. Then again, we were too poor for swimming, ballet, and all that other stuff so there’s that. I didn’t have anything but their personality to be proud of. ^_^
I completely agree that life isn’t fair and trying to make it fair sets your kids up for an unrealistic playing field. I think my present challenge is how to explain this to my girls in the most constructive way possible. I honestly don’t yet know which one is “better” at swimming. I want my youngest to feel proud of early achievement and for that to push her to keep learning. I want my eldest to understand she has to work for stuff – and if she does – she’ll eventually get that sticker, because hard work USUALLY pays off. I want them both to understand that they can’t always win and to be gracious when the other succeeds at something – even if they don’t. I understand that’s a whole lot to throw at preschoolers. But I also know that these lessons – and the impressions you take forward in life – start in these moments.
I love that you would randomly just hug your kids and tell them how you felt about them. I think those are very special moments. Figuring out how to find ways to treat each child as an individual and find time with them and just them is just as important (and probably more so) as allowing them to figure out how to relate and work/live together.
I’m the middle child of three and I totally get your dilemma here. You need to praise when a child does well, but what if some one didn’t have a similar accomplishment at the same time. It is always a balancing act and someone is likely to feel a little left out. But giving congratulations on even little things may help even the playing field (especially for those “underachievers” whether they actually underachieve or just feel like they do).
Thanks for this. I think it’s those “or just feel like they underachieved” moments that I had to deal with last week. My eldest fell short of getting the badge, but she improved. As far as I’m concerned she achieved. The challenge was making her see that when she didn’t have a sticker to show for it and her sister did. I don’t generally believe “everyone should get a trophy” in these cases – this is about learning there are standards to meet to achieve certain things. It’s a good – and important – lesson to learn. But the parenting challenge here is keeping my eldest feeling good about herself – and trying – after she clearly felt she fell short.
I appreciate your perspective here – thank you.
Life Breath Present said:
Whoa, this is heavy! We haven’t encountered this yet, but I’m sure my siblings have/do feel the same about me in many ways. I’m not really sure what they think/believe right now, especially as I’ve changed my career to Motherhood and so the “outward” achievements aren’t as obvious, though I still have made them. Nonetheless, I hope to balance all this with our children too, not by playing anything down but by truly celebrating each child’s accomplishments to the fullest. This may or may not be right, it may or may not work, but right now, I know that’s what my goal will be!
I hope that you find some answers and balance for yourself and your children as well in this area 🙂
Thanks very much for this. I hadn’t had any encounters with this as a parent until this incident so it was a lot to work through – so far nothing else has come up, but the experience did give me much to think on after. I certainly don’t want to play anything down either – and I also want to be able to teach my kids to celebrate each others achievements as well (which I know can be a tall order at times).
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Brenda Davis Harsham said:
We deal with this all the time in my house. We always say: it doesn’t matter what level you’re in, it matters that you tried your best. I’m not sure that works, but these issues are part of growing up with siblings. My kids are always saying, but so and so got to do it! I always say, well life isn’t fair, and you aren’t so and so. I have to decide what’s right for you now, not what’s right all the time.
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This post resonates with me. As a child I was the high achiever in my family and grew up feeling that I shouldn’t brag about it and that I had to be sensitive to my sisters. As I grew older, my grades dropped, and my confidence with them. It took years and a return to college as a mature student for me to start achieving again.
My elder daughter gets straight As at school and has had several other achievements (eg winning a writing award), the younger does ok, but not so so well. Mostly she doesn’t seem to mind, and she tends to be easy-going and relaxed. We’ve talked how different people have different kinds of intelligence and that her easy-going approach to life is a bonus. Years ago she was upset because she hadn’t done as well as a younger friend at reading and his mum pointed out that she was brilliant at making friends which was probably a more useful life-skill.
At the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge our kids’ disappointments, and this was really made clear to me several years ago when my elder daughter didn’t do well as expected in a swimming competition. Coaches kept saying she’d done well to get a personal best in one stroke and that this was more important than winning. I could tell she was upset and however much adults try to say races aren’t about winning it’s obvious they prefer when kids win, so she wasn’t really fooled by that! Eventually, we talked about how she felt disappointed, and that it was okay to feel that way. There’s a tendency to think we have to protect kids from difficult emotions (and I certainly do that sometimes), but it’s probably more useful to guide them in how to handle these emotions.
I found the book The Heart of Parenting (how to raise an emotionally intelligent child) by John Gottman extremely useful for this when my girls were little.
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Okay – so there’s a lot in your comment that resonates with me! As a child I was a high achieve (unless we were comparing me to my brother) so there were times I use to play down my achievements with friends and classmates. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t done that because I don’t think any of us should be in a rush to be unexceptional or average. The need to “blend in” as a child or to not try and stand out/flag achievements that might make others feel bad is a strong push – so I think its important to talk early to kids about having confidence in their abilities and what they do well (which is why I DON’T want to rob my youngest of it!)
I also agree in acknowledging kids’ disappointments and your example is wonderful. Glossing over those moments with a “great job” when they don’t think it was misses the opportunity you gave your daughter to talk through how she felt about it.
I’ll make a note about the book you suggested – thank you.
Melissa (Wading Through Motherhood) said:
This is such a hard topic! Siblings are likely to have different strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s important to celebrate their successes but also teach them to be humble. Both my sister and I did well in school and she was almost five years older than me so I didn’t feel that sense of competition.
My mom and her sister were a similarly large split and she said that helped in these things – when you are closer in age you are more closely compared naturally, which makes it harder. I agree – the balance between celebrating success and being cognizant of HOW to do that without “rubbing someone else’s face in it” so to speak) is a tricky combo for kids (for adults too!) – but I think that should be the goal.
Mommy A to Z said:
I love your honesty! This is such a hard part of parenting more than one kid. I was an only child and got all the praise (and criticism). Now I have two, and there’s rivalry, and I don’t always know the best way to handle it. I try to make a big deal out of both of their accomplishments, but I know it will get tougher as my toddler gets older. Thanks for linking up at the Manic Mondays blog hop!
Prayers as you work it out. I have no input on this one as I’m the single parent of an only child (a whole ‘nother set of issues). I love how reflective you are and that you are seeking input to help your daughters as they go through the guantlet of life.
Thanks Regina! I’m a planner and over-thinker from way back! But I figure if a little early reflection and some sound advice from others that have been through it helps – then why not take advantage of it?
As for only kids? Yeah, I got nothing. But you – and your son – give every indication that you are doing a great job!