Gifted and Nongifted Siblings: How Conventional Wisdom is Wrong

By Mark Erlandson

Mark Erlandson, the parent of a gifted student who presently attends a boarding school out East, is a former lawyer and public high school English teacher from Wisconsin starting a new business as a legal writing consultant.

Gifted and nongifted siblingsOne of the problems with “conventional wisdom” is that it is often wrong. Remember the one about how the earth is flat? No? How about how you shouldn’t swim for an hour after eating because you would get cramps? Which brings us to the topic of today’s blog: the conventional wisdom that the nongifted sibling(s) of a gifted brother or sister suffers because of the relationship: the gifted child gets more attention from parents, teachers and relatives or gets more resources, or just the inevitable rivalry and competition that occurs between siblings in a situation where the nongifted sibling(s) will feel inferior and thus less happy.

The problem with this conventional wisdom about gifted and nongifted siblings is the research says it is just not true. Perhaps the largest study was conducted back in the 1990’s by Diana L. Chamrad and Nancy M. Robinson, PhD, and reported in the Gifted Child Quarterly. They studied 378 sibling pairs, ages eight to 13, where one sibling was gifted and the other was not. The authors expected to find that “the nongifted siblings were more anxious and depressed, that they were poorer students (relative to their ability), and that they thought less well of themselves and were negatively disposed toward their brother or sister.” Instead, the study concluded that “it is actually, if anything, an advantage to be the brother or sister of a gifted child!” [Emphasis in original.] Some of these benefits were decreased anxiety in younger children with an older gifted sibling, gifted children viewing their siblings in a more positive light than nongifted children do, and more positive sibling relationships for both when one was gifted and one was not than if neither sibling were. A study conducted in Israel and reported in the December 2009 issue of Gifted and Talented International found a similar lack of negative consequences.

So why the common wisdom that children with a gifted brother or sister will suffer because of that fact? Maybe because of the tendency to want a ready answer for the unavoidable sibling conflicts and rivalry that arise in almost every family since Cain and Abel.

And does that mean the parents of a family with both gifted and nongifted siblings need do nothing? No. Some advice: avoid labeling children as “the brain” or “the athlete” or “the social butterfly;” avoid excessively praising the gifted child either directly or through talking about him or her in the presence of the nongifted sibling; don’t give special privileges to the gifted child at the expense of the nongifted, e.g., don’t excuse him or her from chores to devote more time to enhancing interest areas developed and spurred by his or her “giftedness;” and finally, teach all siblings that “fair” does not mean “equal,” i.e., each child is unique with different needs at different times, and you will strive to meet those needs.

Managing family dynamics is never easy, no matter what the relationship between the siblings is. Sibling rivalry and conflict are perhaps inevitable. But the parent of a family with both gifted and nongifted siblings can rest easier knowing that the conventional wisdom is wrong, so finish that sandwich and jump in the pool. Trust me. You’ll survive.

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Photo credit: adwriter via photopin cc

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