Creating a Separate School Identity for Siblings
By Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel
The first days of Junior High and High School present fresh new beginnings: hopeful, yet at the same time fraught with anxiety. Children worry about their classroom performance, strict teachers and difficult subjects. In addition, they experience stress about social performance and their relationship (or lack thereof) to the opposite sex. Parents buy their children bright new knapsacks, folders and book bags - not to mention back to school clothes - to allay the sting and generate excitement. Bribery works for awhile. However, a rarely addressed problem lurks within many families spilling over into school. When siblings are close in age, let us say fifteen months apart, they have difficulty forging separate identities. While they are not technically twins, they follow closely in each other’s footsteps either basking in the glory of a sibling’s academic achievement, jealous of his or her success, or seeking to hide any kinship with an underachiever/troublemaker.
How close is too close in age at a time and place where a separate identity needs to be forged?
It has been theorized that one’s birth position predicts behavior. Stereotypically, the oldest is the responsible and mature child. The middle child is the one with the most problems. The youngest is the baby and happily adored. However, two siblings who are close in age and almost on the same developmental step, while they do not share the identical thoughts and feelings that form a mystical bond with twins, they do require the sensitivity of dealing with twins. Then add to this complex mixture-- school. At school this sibling rivalry is intensified by peer pressure. Even if the older sibling wants to hang out with his younger brother, his peer group might make fun of him.
What happens when the younger sibling is assigned to the same teachers? These teachers have amassed preconceived notions and they will exhibit either an overt or covert prejudice to the child, especially if there is a physical family resemblance. Growing up in the shadow of an older brother or sister at school where performance is graded, a child is likely to be labeled.
This might not always be practical, but perhaps enrolling children in different schools, at least for high school, might create emotional and intellectual space for a sibling, promoting his or her ability to develop separately. I did that for my sons and they were five years apart! Although they attended two high schools in different neighborhoods, one in Brooklyn and the other in Long Island, they both made it to the University of Pennsylvania in their own style. There was less competition at home and more positive relations, “I’ll teach you about girls,” and big brother talk like that. Even with all this, my older son is definitely a tough act to follow.
If enrollment in two separate schools isn’t an option, then parents should act as their children’s advocate to create a school within a school. A visit to the teachers, the principal and the guidance department is in order. Issues need to be aired out with the staff; primarily feedback from the home front is crucial to an educator’s scope of understanding for his student. “This child specifically needs…”
Sometimes the problem is minimal. Benna Golubtchik, a New York based educational specialist says,” even if siblings end up having the same teachers the following year, there will be other children in the class which will create a different chemistry. Also, when siblings pursue the same extra-curricular activities, a year later, there might even be another faculty advisor who completely transforms the experience.”
At home encourage separate individual hobbies and after-school activities. For example, one child might attend music school and the other karate. Each one needs to find a niche that distinguishes subjective abilities. Also, spend time with each one—separately doing other activities. After all, each child represents another part of you, physically and mentally. Become a positive mirror. Affirm each child verbally, don’t anticipate the negative. Benna Golubtchik reminds us, “children have personal learning styles: auditory, visual and drawing-- siblings do too.” Respect individual study habits and affirm your child in your heart. He or she will sense it. Each child needs an affirmation that is special to him or her.
Look to empower each child with exercise. A workout provides a physical outlet for pent up stress and raises endorphin levels to promote a sense of well-being. Exercise generates self-esteem and focus which transfer over to daily living. Ultimately, all this translates to academic improvement. Also, each child can select his or her special exercise program: strength training, yoga, aerobics, running, martial arts or team sports. Patient application in working towards a goal builds character: Small steps, giant gains.
Schedule a dinner hour that works for your family. Encourage individual voices to be heard and acknowledged. Try to encourage the quieter sibling to participate. Don’t worry about being patronizing; elicit responses to develop personal opinions that matter. If one sibling is loud and overwhelming, then speak to him or her about the value of listening—Count your words and make them count. If the other sibling is introverted and subdued, ask questions on topics of particular interest, making it your interest too. Encourage communication and flexibility in respecting other people’s opinions. Also, a sense of humor goes a long way to defuse many tense and controversial discussions. In general, act as a coach and referee to promote fair play at the dinner table. Celebrate the differences!
The important consideration: Each child needs to cultivate a personal voice. Even if both children wear uniforms in the same school, they will learn with your guidance and the school’s involvement how to distinguish themselves through their divergent style of personality, thought and speech. When two children are close in age, the demarcation line might not always be obvious; emotional maturation and physical development differ from child to child. The older child might even be shorter and more immature! Remember it is the heart that truly sees. What is important is invisible to the eye.
Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel, MA is the author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, a stress-reduction specialist, motivational speaker, a personal trainer and mind/body lecturer at Brooklyn College. She is the host of the weekly Turn On Your Inner Light Show on WLIE 540 AM in New York City and has been featured on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com