Often in families with siblings, children are always trying to measure up to one another—competing, comparing, and assessing how they each fit into the family's hierarchy. Recent studies have shown that siblings—even more than parents—affect the way children perceive themselves and how they relate to others outside of the home. Within most families, sisters and brothers will naturally take on specific roles: "The Funny One," "The High Achiever," "The Anxious One," "The Athlete," "The Popular One." But that role is often taken on by default, as a response to what the other children are doing, rather than as a true expression of each child's identity. It can be difficult for kids to find their "true self" while fighting a constant battle for parental attention and praise. Kids spend a lot of time watching, absorbing and strategizing how to do better—or expressly not do—the things that they see their siblings doing to gain their parents' favor. It's often a brutal fight to the finish line of approval, and the greatest loss is the opportunity for siblings to seek, find, and nurture their true selves along the way.
As parents, we often complicate this situation even further as we also try to navigate through the family dynamic. At The Mother Company, we do have a few tips we like to offer parents to try to help kids differentiate themselves at a young age, without falling into a predetermined familial role by default:
1. Cut the labels
Avoid labels as much as possible. Saying "he's the soccer player" or "she's the good student" or "he's the rascal" sets up a competitive environment and sends the message that those roles are already taken, and so they have to either compete to displace the other or find something else as their own by default.
2. Don't compare
When you compare achievements—"Your sister ate all her dinner/got an A on her test; why can't you?"—you unfortunately get the same result as labeling by always having the higher achiever/better behaved kid being responsible for "teaching" the other sibs the "right" thing to do. If it happens often enough, the lesson receivers in this equation will generally then take on the role of "The Problem Child." Without comparing achievements, that child would have the endless possibility of changing that behavior and finding himself in a better place with the parents. But if the "Good Kid" role is already taken, the natural instinct of the other child is to differentiate and get attention another way, often negatively.
3. Let them explore their talents
It's a major pain for our sanity as chauffeurs, but encourage different extracurricular activities from an early age. It's so great when kids can find their "own thing" that's totally different from their siblings. And, don't forget to recognize that the small, quiet things are just as worthwhile as the loud, visible, more traditionally celebrated ones. In our forthcoming children's book, "Miles is a Mighty Brothersaurus," middle child, Miles, feels overshadowed by his high-achieving (and attention-grabbing) siblings and thus embarks on a journey to prove himself. With his grandpa's helpful wisdom, Miles discovers that his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs is something worth celebrating, too! And ultimately, we want our kids to know that what's most important is the confidence to know that they are worthy, important and special, no matter their interests or how much attention they get for them.
4. Find you and me time
Try to share special time for 15 minutes per day with each kid. That means alone time, guided by activities they choose and you follow. No other guidance on your or the other siblings' part. No screens, no distractions, and make a big point of locking the front door and turning off your phone, so your kid knows you're 100 percent devoted. And then during that special time, be sure to notice and invest in their interests and different personalities.
5. Let them express themselves
Allow for self-expression in their room decor, dress, and demeanor. Limit hand-me-downs as much as possible, or find fun ways to alter them together to make them unique to them.
Most importantly, of course, it's essential to really observe our kids and truly see them for who they are—and who they might be trying to adapt themselves to be. Stop, look and listen as much as you can. Our kids are giving us clues all the time, and we miss so many of them. Focus your eyes and ears on the quiet moments, let your special time be your guide, and be sure to acknowledge (without over-praising, just recognizing) when they show a passion, interest or positive direction. That's the best we can do.
Samantha Kurtzman-Counter is the president of The Mother Company, which produces and directs all of the "Ruby's Studio" content, and is the co-author of the company's 12 children's books, the sum of which has secured The Mother Company over 25 parenting and media awards. As a parenting and lifestyle expert, she has been interviewed for broadcast segments seeking her insight, such as for MSNBC, WGN-TV, Home & Family, KTLA and WABC-TV. Sam curates content for The Mother Company in addition to serving as a parenting blogger for other sites. She is also a regular speaker at premier women's and parenting conferences, such as the S.H.E. Summit. Sam and her husband reside in Los Angeles with their 9-year-old son.