Double Take: Parenting strategies for siblings can’t be all-inclusive

Samantha: As I get closer to leaving for college, I start to think about what it will be like for my little sister in a few months. She says that, even though I won’t be around, she will still think of me in the first few weeks of school every year when teachers mistake her for me.

Because we moved around so much, my sister hasn’t attended many of the same schools that I did. For example, at Southwest, she’s an eighth-grader. I didn’t go to Southwest until ninth grade. However, she still remembers what it was like when she had the same second- and third-grade teachers I had. They called her Samantha by accident all the time; one even called her “Little Samantha,” much to her dismay. Apparently, they expected her to be exactly like me, and she worried about disappointing them.

As the oldest child in my family, I never experienced older sibling comparisons. I’ve always been free to pave my own way and make my own impressions. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have teachers expect things of me before I even enter the classroom on the first day.

As parents, how do you deal with the challenges a younger sibling faces? How can you let a younger sibling be who she is? First, try and avoid making those comparisons yourself. Saying things like “When Samantha was in that class, she studied with flashcards for every test” may be both irrelevant and hurtful. Each child is different. What worked for one will not necessarily work for the other. This also applies to the discipline. Don’t assume that the consequences and rewards that worked with an older sibling will have a similar effect on your younger child.

Help the younger sibling find activities that are uniquely his or her own. At the same time, don’t pressure the younger sibling to be different for the sake of being different. My sister and I both sing and act. We both love to write and are both interested in journalism. Since she was 8, however, my sister has been writing short stories and plays for the fun of it, and recently started acting in plays at the Lawrence Community Theatre. I never did that. There, the director knows her and only her, and she gets a fresh start.

Finally, help younger sibs develop their own views about things. Make it clear that they don’t have to value and appreciate everything the older ones do. My sister came on most of my college tours, and although she groaned about it, she learned something important about herself. While we are similar in some important ways, the colleges that appealed most to me sickened her more than peanut butter on fried eggs.

To an older sibling like me, being the younger sibling looks pretty tough, but, with careful parenting, I think my sister and her younger sibling peers will be just fine.

Wes: Peanut butter is really pretty good on everything. Otherwise I have to agree with Sam down the line. I often say that the difficulty of writing a book on parenting is that you have to write a different book for every kid. Despite the hype, there isn’t any assistant professor of parenting who can generalize a strategy across the vast array of today’s teens. I’ve tried. I’m still trying.

One could assume that the variables are at least a little narrower within a given sibling set. Nope. I’ve seen families with three or four kids who all seem to have grown up in different foreign countries — or planets. There are about a hundred ways to categorize kids, so it’s a little dangerous even to get started. But we all crave labels, whether we admit it or not. They give us a model for understanding human behavior by simplifying something that’s too complicated to fully understand.

One model I tend to use in understanding kids is the continuum of caring. Some people lean toward caring too much. Others care too little. I don’t mean morally. Just in how they attend to the world around them. The farther you lean toward excess caring, the more likely you are to have problems with anxiety. The farther you lean in the opposite direction, the more you tend toward attention deficit.

Before everyone runs to the word processor, I am not proposing that everyone needs to be treated for one or the other. Quite the opposite. By understanding this “leaning” you can figure out whether you need to get your kids to care more or care less. That guides your discipline. For example, care-too-much kids work harder with less stress applied. In fact, if you press them to hard you get less out of them or worse, they get overwhelmed. Care-too-little kids need more external reinforcement, rewards, guidelines, structure. Sibling sets can include kids who lean in opposite directions and thus need different approaches. So, as Sam notes, what worked with the older one can easily fall flat with the younger one.

The bottom line is that parenting is inherently strategic. You have to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. While that seems really obvious, most problems of parenting show up right there. Parents get caught up in a theory (like “never bribe kids” or “natural and logical consequences”) because an expert said that’s what works. Unless you get really lucky and pull down the right theory for you kid, parents are always better off figuring our each child as an individual and trying to tune to his or her frequency. It takes more work, but it gives parents what Sam is proposing — a unique perspective on each of their kids.

Correction: Oops. The late Loren Pope is a him, not a her. My apologizes for my bad editing in last week’s column. The book “Colleges that Change Lives” is a great resource.

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to doubletake@ljworld.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.

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