In school, one sibling’s labels may be handed down to the next child.

A sensitive teacher will try to know and care about each child without making comparisons with an older sibling.

But sometimes it’s hard for teachers not to think, “He’s the brother of that noisy kid. I guess he’ll be noisy, too.”

Teachers may feel they can use labels to mark the family’s individuality, or to start a relationship with an otherwise unknown child.

Relationships, though, can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Expecting one sibling to follow in an older one’s footsteps may sometimes open doors, but it can also be destructive. Can we limit labeling in schools and help siblings deal with labeling when it can’t be prevented?

My 5-year-old granddaughter Addie was placed in a class two years after my grandson Willie. On the first day, the teacher said, “I hope you’re as nice as Willie was. He was always on time and so helpful.”

My granddaughter replied simply, “I’m Addie.” Addie wouldn’t be held to her brother’s classroom behavior — good or bad.

Schoolmates may label siblings, too. Younger siblings may have heard from older ones about the big brother or sister of the child in their class. Older children, too, may have heard about a classmate’s younger sibling. Parents can expect this when one of their children stands out, whether for a special talent or a special need.

Parents can prepare a child for this kind of comparison, and listen carefully for the child’s feelings. It will be important for the child to know that even if the kids at school make comparisons, parents don’t: “Kids at school may think they know you just because they know your big brother. But all you have to be is yourself.”

Competition between siblings is inevitable: “She was in the school play and I wasn’t.” Or, “I’m in the advanced reading class, and you weren’t.”

This kind of competition is inevitable. Is it hurtful? Probably not, as long as it comes from the children, and the balance isn’t always tipped against the same child.

Adults — parents and teachers — all need to look closely for subtle ways that they may encourage more successful children to lord it over the others. Adults can also seek opportunities to support and encourage the less successful ones.

So often, recognition in school is limited to a few narrow traditions — academic prizes, team sports, school plays and the like. Parents can encourage each sibling to try out all kinds of skills without feeling they must live up to an older brother or sister’s success. These skills include, for example, the ability to work as a team, and to show altruism and compassion.


If one child is struggling in a class that was easy for an older sibling, parents need to pay attention. If there is an important reason for this new problem, such as a learning disability, the younger child’s challenge can be made even harder by the older sibling’s success. Face the problem, don’t minimize it.

Parents and teachers can strive to avoid comparing one sibling with another. But when the child brings it up, take these feelings seriously. “Of course it doesn’t seem fair for you to have to work so hard. Once you find your own special way of learning, you can do your best. And we will help you.”

Parents can play down the natural competition in schools. They can focus on a child’s areas of strength and on such noncompetitive qualities as being a good friend.

This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to:

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