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4 Ways to Navigate Competition and Avoid Sibling Rivalry

As two of my four sons move into middle school, the work gets harder. The obstacles get higher, and the tests get more demanding. We’re a sit-around-the-table-and-talk-about-your-day kind of family, at least a few nights a week, so each of our sons is aware of the other’s triumphs and challenges.

This can be great. It effectively ends any kind of  “woe-is-me” pity party, and—even better—gives each of us a team to help brainstorm a solution to a problem we can’t solve on our own.

What happens, though, when a tween sees a sibling’s strength as an indictment of his own struggle?

One son saying the other is “smarter at math” has the power to push my brain through my ears. It sounds like an excuse, a blow-off, and a cop-out, while also sounding like a cry for help and evidence of low self-esteem.

As parents, we try so hard not to compare our kids. At least not out loud, or at the very least not when we think they can hear us. So how should we respond when they compare themselves to each other?

By middle school, kids are starting to understand that they are not “best” at everything. It is normal and healthy, important developmentally and psychologically, for kids to be able to place themselves on a spectrum of skill. Knowing what you’re great at—and where you need extra time, support, and work—allows students to better budget their schedules and celebrate their own victories. The only way to do that is to compare, and siblings offer the most obvious—and honest—opportunities for that comparison.

Four strategies help my family navigate the murky waters of self-evaluation and comparison. Whether my sons are sizing themselves up against the abilities and accomplishments of a friend, a classmate, or a brother, we continue to reinforce these guidelines.

Shifting the Conversation Away from Competition

1. Focus on learning, not grades.

More than grades, test scores, prizes, or wins, we value learning. The trick here is that we have to consistently praise the learning (not just the attention-grabbing stuff like awards and high scores). We do so by asking our children what they’ve learned instead of what score they received.

2. Emphasize the role of effort.

How hard you work is more important than your innate ability—and more rewarding as well.

Did you know that your effort can impact your ability? Research demonstrates that just knowing this fact improves kids’ motivation and, in fact, also leads to better performance. So we try to focus on the sweat our kids put in to learning.

3. Remind them to believe in themselves.

Someone else’s talent has nothing to do with you. Stop focusing on what someone else can do and show yourself what you can accomplish. Remember that effort can trump innate ability. And linking poor performance to lack of innate ability reduces drive and motivation.

4. Encourage them to challenge themselves, not others.

Their goal should be to beat their own personal best. When they compete against themselves, they can work on trying to beat their own record.

None of this keeps our kids from talking (read: whining) about what a sibling does better, particularly when said child is struggling. We aim to keep him concentrating on the resilience he needs to continue trying. And to keep our own frustration at bay. This list helps us to do both.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Deborah Gilboa, M.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. G”), is a family physician and author of Get the Behavior Your Want  . . . Without Being the Parent You Hate. Follow her on Twitter @AskDocG or learn more at AskDoctorG.com.