By Debbie 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
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.
Unedited by BPO Staff
Debbie Eisenstadt Mandel, MA is the author
of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind
, 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 Long Island and has been featured
on radio/ TV and print media. To learn more visit: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com