How families react to children’s performance in school can have lasting consequences on a child’s development and self-esteem, according to experts. What should a parent do when one child is a better student?
"In some ways it’s complicated, and parents’ perceptions are not always accurate," said Alexander Jensen, assistant professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life.
In a 2015 study, Jensen asked parents which of their children was better at schoolwork. Turns out, parents believed their firstborn was smarter — unless the firstborn was a son and the second was a daughter. In that case, the daughter was deemed smarter. Between two siblings of the same sex, parents believed the firstborn was smarter. Between female and male siblings, parents on average believed girls were smarter in school regardless of birth order.
While the study didn’t ask why, "it may have been that parents conflate age with natural ability. Then, there’s the gender issue," Jensen said. "Parents tend to view older siblings as more capable, but on average older siblings are not doing better in school than their younger siblings."
Regardless of who’s smarter, the social comparison of grades between siblings has negative implications for kids.
"It’s linked to depression, increased fighting," Jensen said. Parents should minimize comparisons as much as possible, he said.
"Children are vigilant in comparisons, and it can backfire and be a negative. Parents need to be aware of that," said Susan McHale, distinguished professor of human development and family studies, professor of demography and director of the Social Science Research Institute at Pennsylvania State University.
A child can be smart, but if a brother or sister is seen as smarter, "that can have implications as far as future goals and plans, their sense of self, and it can affect their everyday performance," she said.
When a child is seen to be second-best (or third- or fourth-) academically, she may withdraw rather than compete, McHale said. Instead she focuses her efforts toward a different way to compete: If one child is "the smart one," another may be "the sporty one" or "the musical one" or "the one on the debate team."
"It minimizes opportunities, and you really want to avoid this," McHale said.
Parents need to help kids see beyond who’s getting better grades.
Pick and praise
"Focus on what the ‘less better’-performing child is doing right versus wrong, so to speak," said licensed marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar. "They are excelling at something — figure that out and nurture it. Focus on their character development versus performance. Build them up on their attributes from small to big things. Remember their actions in the past that had a positive effect on the family and you."
All kids have different strengths, and they need to hear their parents recognize them for it, Jensen said.
Praise effort, not achievement
"Parents should praise a child’s effort rather than the outcome," such as grades, Jensen said. That will make the grade comparison conversation come up less often, he said.
Work effort is something that all children can change, while top grades are not always achievable for all students.
"Reinforce kids for what they’re doing. If their work ethic is terrific, tell them," McHale said.
Parents may think comparing grades will spur kids to do better, but it’s not effective.
"It may generate motivation, but the long-term effects are mostly negative," Bahar said.
Remember that you’re the parent of more than one child, McHale said. Both kids hear what you say to them and their siblings, and that gives them a sense of who they are.
"It’s hard for parents to not notice or think about differences between their children; it’s only natural," Jensen said. "But to help all children succeed, parents should focus on recognizing the strengths of each of their children and be careful about vocally making comparisons in front of them."