I know a very sweet family that includes an 8-year-old girl who may be exceptionally gifted. (I personally believe all children are gifted in some way.) This little girl excels in school, reads way above grade level and loves math and science. She dances, sings and performs comfortably in front of all kinds of people, uses a vast vocabulary including scientific, historic and present-day cultural terms, is at ease socially with all ages of people and has a high level of self-confidence.
Her little sister is 5, and a wonderful little girl, also. She is funny and sweet and loves books and singing and sports. She’s happy, well-adjusted and has a good relationship with her sister. But she does not excel the way her sister does. I can see that sometimes it may be tough for her.
This is a difficult scenario for parents, and fairly common, I think. Whether the older child is gifted or not, he or she usually is the first at everything – riding a bike, reading, the school play, the soccer team, etc. There tends to be more excitement at the first accomplishments than the second time around with the younger sibling.
Parents are more “seasoned” with later children, and this can be a good thing. They may not get as nervous with all the bumps and scrapes, setting boundaries may loosen up a bit and expectations may not be quite as high. However, there also may not be as much attention, feedback and concern for the activities of the next kids.
Family resources may be overly concentrated on developing the talents of the older or gifted child. Parents may expect too much (or too little) of the other kids, or parents may be so blinded by the exceptionality of the older child, they fail to perceive the gifts of the younger one. And, sibling rivalry can be potent when one child is gifted.
Recent studies by Dr. Nancy Robinson on this very topic show that actually it can be an advantage to be the brother or sister of a gifted child. An older gifted sibling was associated with decreased anxiety in the younger child. Gifted children tended to view their siblings in a more positive light. When both siblings were sisters, as the case with this family I know, relationships appeared particularly positive.
So what are these parents, who are very aware of the situation, trying to do?
They expect both girls to get along, to like and respect each other. This expectation is the most powerful message to give.
They teach the girls that “fair” is not necessarily equal, and the goal is to meet the needs of each child. Children will learn to trust in the individual support for their needs and passions.
Both parents take time for companionship, hugs, fun and time alone with each girl, even if it only means a trip to the grocery store together.
They treasure each child for her own characteristics and realize gifts show up in different ways and different times.
They refrain from using comparisons and stereotypes: The “athlete” naturally implies that the other child is not athletic.
They never let one daughter be more favored or privileged than the other – in a functioning family, everyone pitches in.
Are these ideas any different from how to treat all children, regardless of whether they are gifted? I think not. Families are complicated, and certainly parents’ awareness is key. Watching the dynamics and having a plan in mind keeps parents one step ahead, which I’ve always thought is an advantage. This little family is thriving, and hopefully, these girls will continue to feel special, supported for their own talents and loved.
Note: Siblings Without Rivalry (Avon Books, 1998) is an excellent source of parenting ideas for these situations.
Martha McClellan has been an early care child educator, director and administrator for 36 years. She currently has an early childhood consulting business, supporting child care centers and families. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.