Holding Back One Child for the Sake of Another
Dear Dr T.,
My teens are super competitive with each other – no surprise there. Some of the children are real stars, but I think everyone does well enough.
What’s becoming more and more a problem is that my oldest just doesn’t shine as brightly as the rest. As the younger children grow up and so obviously do well, my oldest daughter retreats into herself.
I am writing to you now because of a situation that just came up. My third daughter, age 14, was just given the major role in her camp’s production. Now, the oldest, a twelfth grader, has gone to that camp for four years and has not even been on stage! She feels awful.
The camp director has brought this situation to my attention. She suggested that the younger daughter not take the part to spare her sister’s pride. After all, she reasoned, she will be going to camp more years, and there will be many other opportunities.
Somehow, this approach does not sit well with me. Much as I would love to spare my oldest any pain, I don’t feel good about holding back my younger daughter.
What do you think?
Here’s the rule: we never hold back one person for the sake of the other. Everyone – child or adult- should be encouraged and supported in doing his very best. Whether in the family, camp, school, or work – no person should ever be asked to quash his talent for the sake of another’s feelings. I am aware that some parents ask their children (and certain schools ask their staff) to hold back so as not to show up the next person. But, to my way of thinking, this is wrong.
Having said that, I do feel for your daughter – and for any other person who feels less valuable because of another person’s accomplishments. The trick is to massage the situation so that it works for everyone. Let’s look at how all the players can be part of a solution.
Let me repeat: holding one person back for the sake of another is backward. What we want to do is raise the one child up, without making the other fall.
As parents, we want to help the child who falls short. This includes things like:
- Developing your child’s self-esteem. Be the positive mirror that reflects how special she is.
- Helping your child find an area of competence that will give her some satisfaction and public recognition. Could it be chess? Ice sculptures? Origami?
- Rewarding effort, not only achievement. The less-than-talented deserve our recognition and praise every bit as much as those who shine. This is particularly true when the talent is a brachah from HKBH and not something earned by dint of extraordinary effort. The brachos bee winner may well have spent less time studying than the child who was first to be out.
- Eliminating any favoritism you may show the winning child. Children are not nachas They need our love, no matter what abilities they bring to the table. Often a child is not jealous of the talent, but rather the attention his sibling receives for it.
Now that’s a hard one, particularly in a young child or one whose praise has gone to his head. But, there is a line between holding back and overweening pride.
- Your child should take pleasure in his talent and work on developing it to the nth degree. It is a gift, and he has a right to enjoy it.
- Your child, while aware of his talent, will do best if he can see its impact on those around him. A modest and matter-of-fact manner will enhance his accomplishments, but lording it over his sibs or peers will earn him resentment.
- Your child also needs to develop empathy for others. It is always a challenge for those who “have” to understand what it’s like to be a “have-not,” but developing the sensitivity to feelings of others will help make your child a better, more likable person.
The “Second-Place” Sister
There’s a lot to be learned here, and learning it early in life is an asset. Realistically speaking, most of us – even the shiniest stars – are eventually confronted by the prowess of others. Early life experience in dealing with this sometimes pays off.
Your child can take a page from the fable of the tortoise and the hare. At the end of the day, it’s often effort – not talent – that carries the day. She can also learn about her strengths and weaknesses. This awareness allows your child to play to her strengths and compensate for her weaknesses. Finally, she can look for her special talent and make it work. With some encouragement, many children can find some less common, but socially-acceptable area that they can develop.
As parents, we ache for our child’s pain. We go to great lengths to make it go away. Sometimes we figure (wrongly, by now you have inferred) that the talented sibling has so much going for her that she can afford to be squelched.
While the strategies here can ease some of the tension, we cannot totally erase it. But, as adults, we need to hold on to the perspective that our children will face many challenges in their life – and we cannot always fix those for them. By guiding our children through life’s inevitable ups and downs, we are preparing them to face the world with increased confidence and an ability to cope.
The Book Nook: Self Esteem by Mathew McKay, Ph.D. is a classic text on improving children’s self-esteem. The book helps readers focus on their good points, combat their negative inner voice, and deal with hurtful criticism.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.