I’ve been grappling with the decision of letting you respond publicly to this question for many months. On the one hand, I’m scared my son will read this question and know it’s me, on the other hand, I feel that many other parents have the same problem. I’m going to ask you to reply publicly and hope that others will gain from your reply. I’ll keep this question simple. Some of my kids are brighter than others. The Rebbeim of the smarter ones constantly compliment them and the other ones are hurting. They don’t say it, but I know it. What can I do? Anonymous – Queens.
I would like to begin by pointing out something. You are a fantastic mother. Any parent that recognizes and feels their children’s emotions is doing a great job. The scenario you described is a common one, and unfortunately, many parents seem oblivious to the hurt they are causing to their other children. It’s not only the Rebbeim that compliment them, but it’s also teachers, neighbors, and even the parents themselves.
As someone who’s spoken to the “other” children, I can assure you that the pain is real. Here’s how a fourteen-year-old (With a twelve-year-old brother that’s amazing) described it to me a few weeks ago. “My first emotion is always anger. Why is he a better student? Why can’t anyone recognize that I’m trying also? My second emotion is jealousy. I wish I was that smart. I want the life he has. The last emotion is always depression. I feel like a horrible person and brother. Why can’t I just be happy for him.”
I asked this question to an older and experienced Rebbe many years ago. His advice was “Tell the weaker child(ren) that Hashem has a plan, and we are all a part of it. Their sibling might have one responsibility and they have another.” I walked away with a special insight that day which was as follows. Being an older and experienced Rebbe doesn’t mean you always have the right answers.
His answer wasn’t wrong. It was just completely useless. Of course, Hashem has a master plan. That’s not going to help a teenage boy who’s watching a sibling excel while he’s struggling. If we’re looking at the questions from a completely altruistic perspective, then yes, we should tell him Hashem has a plan. Realistically speaking, this will give him a lot more questions than answers.
Let’s try and analyze what the proper approach is. It seems that there is only one way to deal with this, and that is to build up your son(s). Certainly, telling him that his siblings “aren’t that great” is a big mistake. Parenting is about positive reinforcement, and if you start putting other people down, even for a good reason, it’s very hard to stop.
Here are some ideas that you can try. There is no shame in asking for help, so if these ideas don’t work, it’s probably a good idea to enlist the help of a professional. To help keep these tips simple, I’m calling the stronger sibling “Child two” and the weaker sibling “Child one”.
Every child has a skill they excel in. It could be drawing, chess, sports, puzzles or even swimming. It’s the job of a parent to find that skill set and help them shine. If child one’s younger brother is a better student and athlete, find what he is good at. For argument’s sake, let’s pretend the child one is better at cooking. Have him help you prepare Shabbos and make a huge deal about it. When he walks into the kitchen and you’re on the phone, pretend you didn’t see him and say, “And he cooked everything for Shabbos, and it was delicious!” You can’t imagine how happy he will be.
You and your husband should have someone on one time with child one. Validate his emotions and let him know that he’s an amazing son and brother. Make the night about him. Discuss summer plans, career goals and anything else. Let him understand that he’s super important to you. You know it and he knows it. He just needs to hear it sometimes.
Involve his Rebbeim and his teachers. Most educators would love to help a child in need. Explain the need for discretion and ask them to build up his esteem. Make sure they understand to never make comments like “What can’t you be more like your brother?” I’ve unfortunately heard of teachers using this information the wrong way. “Now I understand why you are jealous of your brother! At least he doesn’t talk during class!” Obviously, that would be a huge mistake with horrible consequences. If you feel that specific Rebbe or teacher isn’t capable of helping you or can’t be trusted with this sensitive information, trust your gut.
When the family is together, for example, supper, Shabbos, or any other occasion, keep the conversation steered away from anything that can cause anyone to become uncomfortable. If school or anything extracurricular is brought up, don’t change the subject immediately. That only means you have something to hide. Rather, respond appropriately, give credit where it’s due, and then change the subject.
You must always keep in mind that child two also needs some attention. Just getting it from others isn’t enough, and he’d love to hear it from you also. Of you think he’s mature enough, you can tell him that you don’t make a huge issue of his accomplishments because you’re worried about Ayin Hara.
I was involved with a family that was dealing with a similar issue almost twenty years ago, and both parents felt it wasn’t a big issue. I distinctly remember the father telling me “It’s ok. He’ll deal with it, and he’ll become stronger.” Suffice it to say, they don’t have many family reunions. I’m not saying that you need to always make a huge issue out of this, but certainly, it behooves all parents to ensure that all of their children feel successful.
Wishing you a good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.