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11 ways to handle the academic differences between your children

Siblings doing homework
Making comparisons between our children can affect their self-esteem, so how can we break out of the habit?

As parents, we’re well aware that all children are unique. Yet if you’re a parent to two or more children, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of comparing them to each other – especially if one consistently does better at school than the other.

‘It’s completely normal to make comparisons; we do it all the time, even though we know our children are individuals with different skills,’ says social psychologist Dr Elle Boag of Birmingham City University.

‘But as parents, we have to be aware of this tendency, and help our children find their own path.’

The dangers of comparing our kids

Telling your child to try harder on their spellings because ‘your sister never has a problem with them’ may be intended to spur them on, but can actually leave them feeling inferior to their sibling.

‘This has a marked effect on their self-esteem,’ says Dr Boag.

In turn, this can lead to the less academic child putting in less effort, not more. They feel they’re never going to live up to their sibling’s standards, so why bother trying?

Perhaps surprisingly, comparisons can also affect the more able child’s self-esteem.

They may begin to feel that they’re only valued if they’re doing well at school.

Siblings may become resentful of each other, too. The more academic sibling may feel bitter about being on the receiving end of parental pressure, while the less academic child resents their sibling for being the ‘golden child.’

‘This can be particularly difficult if the younger child is working at the same level as their sibling, or even higher,’ adds Dr Boag.

The tendency to make comparisons can be even greater if you were a high achiever at school.

‘If you uphold academic achievement as highly valued, there are definite negative consequences for children who don’t meet your standards,’ says Dr Boag.

How schools play a part

Teachers, too, can sometimes reinforce the academic differences between children.

For example, if a child enters the school a couple of years after their highly academic sibling, they may face comments like, ‘I hope you’re going to be as good at maths as Henry.’

On the contrary, a more academic child following in their sibling’s footsteps may face lower expectations from teachers and not be challenged to reach their potential.

‘Teachers are conscious that this isn’t helpful, but they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t make these comparisons, even though they know they are unhelpful,’ Dr Boag says.

So how can we handle the academic differences between our children to make sure each one feels loved, valued and able to achieve?

11 strategies to handle the academic differences between kids

1. Work on your language. Saying things like, ‘Your sister never found this so hard’ may be intended to motivate your child, but the message they receive is negative.

‘Instead, try saying things like, “How can I help you with this? Let’s work on it together,”’ says Dr Boag.

‘Help your child identify why something is causing them difficulty and show them how to tackle the problem.’

2. Provide opportunities to excel. ‘All children have different skills, so concentrate on what your child loves and enjoys, even if it’s not academic,’ Dr Boag advises.

‘Give them a chance to achieve in a non-academic field, whether that’s music, ballet or swimming.’

‘My son is less academic than his sister, but very talented at drama,’ says Lucy, mum to Tom, 11, and Katie, six. ‘Katie is keen to join his drama club, but we’ve decided not to enrol her so that Tom gets his chance to shine.’

3. Give them both a chance to fail. Setting your child up to fail might sound cruel, but it’s an essential life lesson – especially for academic kids who feel under pressure to excel.

‘Children have to learn to navigate failure, otherwise when they inevitably experience it, they don’t have the coping mechanisms they need,’ says Dr Boag.

Encourage all of your children to develop a ‘have a go’ attitude, even if success isn’t guaranteed – for example, being on the losing team in an inter-schools quiz could do your high achiever a world of good.

Let your children see you fail, too, and provide opportunities for them to see you pick yourself up after a knock back.

‘We try to play a board game as a family every Saturday evening, which is a good opportunity for our very academic son to experience not always being the best,’ says Sarah, mum to Daniel, nine, and Sam, seven.

4. Praise effort as much as achievement. It’s a (not very fair) fact of life that some children can whizz through a task with little effort and achieve 100 per cent, while others can slave over it for hours and still fall short of the expected standard.

It’s vital to praise effort as much as achievement, as this encourages a ‘growth mindset’ where your children believe they can better themselves.

So when you’re congratulating your more academic child on another great test score, make sure you also praise your less bookish child for working so hard.

5. Praise all children equally. OK, we’re not talking about keeping a tally of compliments (although chances are your children will!). But it’s important to praise your children’s achievements equally.

‘We often make a big deal of academic achievements, but how often do we say, “What a fantastic picture! I love how you’ve used the colours,”?’ adds Dr Boag.

6. Commit to their interests. It’s essential to your child that you show up to things that are important to them.

You might be 100 times happier watching child number one play their violin in the school concert than standing in the cold and rain while child number two plays a football match, but they both need you to cheer them on.

‘It’s also important that both parents are involved with each child,’ adds Dr Boag. ‘Don’t leave Sunday morning football to Dad; you both need to be supportive.’

7. Instigate a family meeting. ‘Having an evening where, once a week, you sit down to dinner as a family and discuss how things are going for everyone will give each child the chance to feel valued and feel that they have something to contribute to family life,’ says Dr Boag.

8. Choose schools wisely. Unless you’re willing to send your children to separate schools, it’s important to choose the one that will give them all a chance to shine.

‘We chose a school that had slightly poorer SATs results than the other option, but that had a broad and varied curriculum that I thought would suit my children equally,’ says Kate, mum to Charlotte, 10, and Matilda, seven.

If you’re looking for secondary schools, it’s particularly important to choose according to your children’s needs.

You may even decide to send your children to different schools, for example, by enrolling your more able child in a grammar school, but choosing one with a greater emphasis on sport for your athletic child.

9. Have one-to-one time. Aim to have some time alone with each child on at least a weekly basis, and ideally more often.

‘This is the opportunity to say, “How’s it going? What are you enjoying at school?”, making your children feel listened to, cared for and valued,’ says Dr Boag.

10. Offer to help. It can take a lot for a child to admit that they need your help, whether they’re seen as ‘the capable one’ who gets everything done on their own, or the less academic one who feels they ‘can’t do anything' independently.

‘If they’re able to talk to you and ask for help, do it immediately: don’t put it off, otherwise the moment will pass and you won’t get round to it,’ Dr Boag says.

11. Make the change a habit. Finally, understand that breaking the habit of comparing your children will take time – but it’s worth the effort.

‘It has to be done consciously, and at first it will seem stilted, but the more you do it, the more habitual it will become,’ says Dr Boag.

‘It’s a bit like changing your diet: it’s tough at first, and it’s easy to fall back into old habits, but over time, it becomes second nature.’

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