Most siblings are competitive to some degree. We have all experienced, either with our own siblings or our own kids (or both), battles over the best seat in the living room, the biggest scoop of ice cream, even the prettiest fork to use for dinner! Siblings are forced to share so much; parents, houses, car rides, recreational time, even clothes in many cases. So it makes sense that our human need for acceptance and attention would be stirred into the competition by those we are forced to share resources with. But when siblings, particularly those close in age, also share the same home classroom, and the same teacher (parent), this natural competition can lead into very tricky territory.
Having twins that I’ve homeschooled since the beginning, (and who are now 11), I have born witness to the most profound sibling rivalry I could have imagined. There is no task they embark on that doesn’t begin with a comparison to what the other has or hasn’t done. Although aggravating to no end when it comes to chores or privileges that have to be split like hairs, this obsession with comparison becomes deeply unsettling when it enters the schooling realm.
I first became aware of the issue when they were learning to read. One of them was able to pick it up much faster and was reading pleasure books within a month or two of intentional practice. The other struggled profoundly with basic words and became so self-conscious about the difficulties that he went into an almost constant state of rage for several months. He vehemently insisted that he had no interest in reading, that he thought it was stupid and wouldn’t everyone just leave him alone? Of course, the opposite was true; he wanted desperately to read and now is almost obsessed with the pastime, never leaving home without at least one book. The reality is that he probably has some degree of dyslexia, a topic which has been broached since with mild success. But at the time the only thing he could see was that his brother was doing better than him, again.
This jealousy has been persistent with him, as his brother is also faster and more athletic than him, skills that are particularly revered in our culture and therefore particularly capable of inflicting feelings of inadequacy.
At times I have felt that every challenge he is given, whether academic or not, is colored by the question of whether his brother can do better. As for the other twin, he has accepted the role of winning in most challenges, which fuels his competitive nature in the rest of the world. These are aspects of their upbringing that will shape their personalities, as all of our experiences have, but when it comes to school I cannot help but wonder if we as homeschool parents can minimize some of the collateral damage.
One approach we have tried is talking to them about learning styles, and pointing out that there are many skills and strengths not typically appreciated in our society, a fact which bleeds over into homeschool despite our best efforts. This can help, in theory, when one child is feeling inferior in academic skills such as math or science. In order to engage them, and prevent the topic from sounding boring or abstract, I have tried to find anecdotal stories to bring the point home whenever possible. Life stories about people such as Alan Turing or Albert Einstein come to mind, both of whom were scorned as incapable in their youth. These are extreme examples, as both are now considered geniuses, but they demonstrate that some people have different ways of learning that sometimes aren’t recognized right away. Sharing stories about people in “right brain” professions such as wellness practitioners or artists can be helpful in this sense as well. Anything that can help them understand that our minds work in myriad ways, and the intelligence or capability of a person cannot be measured simply by how fast they accomplish an academic task, is valuable to ease the burden of a sibling who is feeling inferior.
Another piece I feel is helpful in this regard is keeping homeschool activities fresh and diverse. In my article “8 Common Pitfalls That Can Make Homeschool Fail”, I talk about including activities that engage different parts of the brain and therefore may compliment a variety of learning styles. There are plenty of resources available to help you come up with a learning plan that meets this goal. I listed several in that article, and if you would like to make sure you include specific learning styles, or what is often called multiple intelligences, check out these articles: “Checklist: Learning Activities That Connect With Multiple Intelligences”
and “Fun, Engaging Learning Styles Activities for the Classroom”, (https://www.brighthubeducation.com/teaching-methods-tips/). The latter article explains the misconception that each individual has one learning style they default to, and points out that most people need various methods. Hopefully, by offering a rich variety of activities and approaches to learning, you will give each sibling a chance to shine in his/her strength.
Another helpful approach can be to have siblings simply work on different subjects/projects at different times. This may happen naturally with different aged siblings, but if you find siblings are getting distracted by the others work or trying to outshine the older’s achievements, you may need to make sure their topics and projects are different enough not to insight competitiveness.
Sometimes the best support we can give our kids to decrease rivalry and jealousy may come from outside the “classroom” or focused learning time. I am not a big advocate of over-complimenting or praising kids (I am an Alfie Kohn disciple; see his book “Punished By Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars”). But when it comes to those who learn and process the world in ways not typically recognized, I think it’s important to help them recognize that.
For example, my son who struggled with reading and other accomplishments is extremely intuitive and often picks up on things a person needs or feels that others miss. He can also see similarities and patterns in aspects of the world often overlooked by others. I try to recognize these achievements when I can, hopefully without making him too self-conscious.
Aside from any of these tactics, which are sometimes not practical or effective, probably the best support we can give our kids for this, like any issue they face in life, is simply unconditional love and acceptance. In the end, our kids may struggle with feeling inferior or inadequate at times or in particular areas. But if they know in their hearts that they are unique and important individuals with their own special place in the world, they can accept their shortcomings and face each new challenge with vigor.