Two children, different talents

Two children, different talents (VCL/Antonio Mo, Getty Images / April 16, 2013)

When Fran Pitre's twin daughters were 12 years old, they tried out for the softball team, confident they would both make it.

Unfortunately, one girl made the team — and the other was named the statistician.

Pitre, a mother of three sets of twins from Jacksonville, Fla., found herself playing dual roles as chief celebrant and consoler.

"It's hard enough not to compare children that are a couple of years apart, but it's even harder to try not to compare twins," Pitre said. "They have sort of a subconscious expectation that they will do exactly what their twin does."

It can be difficult for parents to watch one child become discouraged when outperformed by a sibling.

But keep in mind that it's inevitable, says parenting expert Michele Borba, author of "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions" (Jossey-Bass). "No matter what happens with siblings," Borba said, "one is always going to be better (at some things) than the other."

Some tips for parents:

Their own private island: This can be an opportunity to help children discover what Dr. Robert Brooks calls "islands of competence." Brooks, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and co-author of "Raising Resilient Children" (McGraw-Hill), says it's crucial that parents honor each child's abilities — and see past their own expectations.

Expecting Johnny to be as smart as his brother increases the likelihood that feelings of inadequacy will surface.

"If you can identify a child's islands of competence and build on them, then the child gains confidence," Brooks said. "Then they may be willing to attempt areas that have been more problematic or difficult for them."

Get involved: Parental involvement on each of those islands can also be a confidence-booster, Brooks said. Going to a sports event together, or enrolling in a painting class, for example, shows you support his efforts and interests regardless of his current skill set.

"It's very important to allow (children) to recognize what strengths they have and then go to town encouraging it," said Pitre. "It's really allowed my kids to develop confidence and a sense of individuality."

Hold the labels: Introductions like "this is our smart one" or "this is the pretty one" can pigeonhole kids into believing they shouldn't venture outside the realm of their parents' opinions. It also indicates that comparisons have been made, creating animosity between siblings.

Skip the false praise: It's hard to listen to a child talk about her shortcomings and how she feels inadequate compared with a more talented sibling.

Parents may want to come to the rescue with glowing affirmations of their intelligence, athletic prowess or artistic abilities — even when it may not be completely true.

So resist the urge; your child probably knows she's being buffaloed.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to acknowledge the shortcomings she's voicing, Brooks said it's better to just hear her out. Validation is empowering and will help open lines of communication, he said. And that's when a parent can encourage a child to focus on the journey, not the destination.

"The main reason kids compare themselves to each other is because they're only seeing the end product," Borba said. "Celebrate the effort, not the end result."

Nobody's perfect: That said, be careful what you say to a child who may have the "never-good-enough syndrome," Borba added. However well-intentioned, constructive criticism following a less-than-perfect game or performance can wreak havoc on a child's self-esteem and morph into something worse.

You know your kid. A good work ethic is one thing, but a child with a history of personal dissatisfaction — despite maximum effort — is another. Borba advocates using positive refrains in which a child acknowledges her efforts by saying something like, "I may not be perfect, but I'm trying my best."

She also advises parents to be introspective to ensure that they aren't modeling perfectionism — and to make sure that another family member isn't fueling a child's comparing himself with a sibling.

sunday@tribune.com