Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gifted Siblings

Per request, today's post is on giftedness and sibling love and rivalry. As any parent of two or more kids knows (and I will find out when baby number 2 arrives in September), just because kids are related doesn't mean they're anything alike. They have different interests, different temperaments, and in some cases within families, some children are highly gifted and others are not. What happens then?

When I first thought about this question, I assumed that when one sibling is highly gifted and the other is "normal" (whatever that means), this would lead to a certain level of strain. After all, if good grades and test scores come easy for one child, and require a lot of effort from the other, wouldn't the child who has to work so hard resent that? If a younger sibling can easily outpace the older on reading or -- seemingly worse -- is accelerated into the same class, wouldn't that be difficult to deal with?

But thinking about it a bit more, and reading about it a bit more, I realized that this (probably) conventional wisdom is not based in fact. For starters, not all highly gifted children are academic superstars -- the "normal" child might actually be happier in school. The child who is not intellectually precocious may have her own interests and talents.

This second version of events turns out to be backed up by some research. According to this report in the Duke Gifted Letter from Nancy Robinson, a study of 378 sibling pairs (ages 8-13, some involving 2 gifted siblings, some involving 1 gifted sibling, or none) revealed that "According to their mothers, the children with a gifted sibling had fewer behavioral problems, and in general they were described with more positive adjectives than the children in pairs with no gifted child. Gifted children described their siblings in a friendlier way, and their mothers confirmed their more amicable relationships. We noted not a single unfavorable difference. Our best guess, based on this study, was that having a gifted sibling was simply a ready excuse for the ordinary wear and tear that brothers and sisters inflict on each other."

Robinson has lots of great advice for how to deal with siblings of different levels of intellectual ability: "Teach your children that “fair” is not necessarily “the same” and that you will meet each child’s needs and passions as best you can. ...
Make time for companionship, hugs, fun, and time alone with each of your children. ... If you spend time chauffeuring one of them to lessons, use the wait time with the other child for a trip to a nearby park or library to practice ball skills or read a special book. At the dinner table, do not let the more verbal child dominate the conversation....Treasure each child for his or her own quirks and assets. Minimize comparisons. Most families — even families of identical twins — assign one child to be 'the smart one,' 'the grumpy one,' or 'the jock.' By implication, the other child is 'dumb,' 'sunny,' or 'a klutz.'"

Not much good can come out of locking children into sibling identities like that!


Jeremy said...

Thank you! This is fascinating stuff, and it rings true. You might want to update the URL for that report to: It sounds like they debunked what many of us might have assumed without question.

I dug into this a bit more and enjoyed this list, which has two interesting points relating to siblings:

"5. Brothers and sisters are usually within five or ten points in measured ability. Parents' IQ scores are often within 10 points of their children's; even grandparents' IQ scores may be within 10 points of their grandchildren's. We studied 148 sets of siblings and found that over 1/3 were within five points of each other, over 3/5 were within 10 points, and nearly 3/4 were within 13 points. When one child in the family is identified as gifted, the chances are great that all members of the family are gifted.

6. Second children are recognized as gifted much less frequently than firstborns or only children. They often go in the opposite direction of their older siblings and are less likely to be achievement oriented. Even the first-born identical twin has a greater chance of being accepted in a gifted program than the second-born!

So it sounds like siblings will often be very close in intelligence, but second-born children will be less likely to be recognized as gifted. This certainly reflects what we've experienced with our kids.

LBJ said...

Laura writes: "and I will find out when baby number 2 arrives in September"

CONGRATULATIONS! I had no idea. Wow!

That's my only comment. Although I am one of seven, I have but one child.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Stuff Jeremy, Laura - I have twin boys who are "smart" and a gifted daughter about 5 years younger. The "older" twin is a steady worker, solid A few B student at a pretty rigorous private school. The "baby" not steady but of course straight A+++ student who devours all knowledge. the other twin, whose IQ scores rank him about 5 points below brother (130 to the bother's 135 - sister closer about 145 last test) is absolutely lazy, refuses to put any effort in and got such awful grades in his last quarter he barely passed. He has pursued "cool" over smart forever but especially since the gifted child was recognized. He is a happy/popular kid except with her - lives to put his sister down, call her dumb and though is proud of his twin's achievements is almost angry at his sister's. Anyone else going through anything like this?

Catherine said...

My first child just passed the early entrance to kindergarten test which puts him in top 5% of 5 year olds at age 4. I've heard that can even out in a few years.

I'm the youngest of four and of the four children in my family, the younger two were in gifted programs. It could have been because the gifted program wasn't existent then, but neither were identified as advanced.

Stephanie said...

Great post! As the parent of one gifted, and one "normal" that are only 16 months apart -- this issue has been hard for us. We have found that the gifted kid also comes well equipped with more empathy than other kids in his age group -- so he is more easily able to relate to how his sister is feeling and put himself in her shoes.

Anonymous said...

We have two gifted daughters (7.5 and 5.0) and a toddler showing lots of signs. The eldest scores as moderately gifted but seems more like highly based on what i've read (and was very fatigued by the testing). She is very "typically" gifted in her behavioural traits.

The younger we assumed wasn't gifted until a wee while ago. She didn't show the same precocious memory, delight in language, intense interest in odd subjects (eg ancient egypt) etc or the behavioural things (she's pretty relaxed and happy) and it was only as she started to show a real interest and pleasure in maths particularly patterns and sequencing that we started to re-think. She was tested recently and came out as highly gifted in all domains.

We are now rethinking our perceptions of her and are still quite unclear how this should translate for her education. (If she's relaxed and happy with an easy approach, how/should we push? - whereas eldest is bored and unhappy with easy).

The elder is very scared of competition (fear of failing we think), and middle is not. I worry that if she starts charging ahead with herlearning - particularly in maths - that she'll rub it in, and becuase of the elder's sensitivities, it will be very hard for her to manage. They have a very abrasive relationship some times - although I'm unclear whether it differs from other kids. Other times they play wonderfully together, and middle certainly admires her older sister.

Jeremy said...

To this last anonymous have almost exactly described our situation, right down to the age/gender split. We also didn't think of our middle daughter as gifted until she was identified, and it really changed how we perceived her strengths and weaknesses. Not that we thought less of her before, but we realized that she probably didn't entirely fit the "story" we all develop on the fly for all of our kids.

So far our daughters haven't been too competitive, but the eldest is definitely much more sensitive to being upstaged. We homeschool, so we can tailor their paces in different subjects, and the younger daughter had pretty much caught up to the older one by the end of this put us in the position of trying to downplay it to the older while encouraging and praising the younger.

They've got a little brother who will be two next week, and who is showing some similar signs of giftedness (huge vocabulary, uncanny memory, etc) -- will be interesting to see how he fits into the mix as he approaches school age, although I suspect he'll be demanding some form of homeschooling with his sisters long before then.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, it was my post you were commenting on. I am very pleased to hear from somone in a similar situation particularly with a child who doesn't seem gifted but is, highly in fact.

I am still quite bewildered by middle. She does not fit the "typical" traits of gifted kids at all unless you look quite hard or are watching her do maths activities (and even then she's not doing things the general public would recognise as particularly special). For example, she makes regular grammatical and syntax errors in her language that seem immune to correction (point it out to the elder once and you never hear the mistake again). I'm wondering now if it's a little deliberate - elder has very strong verbal skills and perhaps this is a point of differentiation.

She seems very happy and laid back, and perhaps that's because it's all very easy for her. Interestingly, she's just moved up a ballet class due to age and class numbers. She was managing fine in her previous class but not looking like she was really in need of more challenge. I watched her in the new class and by gum has she stepped up to the plate! She looks as comfortable as she did in the previous class. I wonder if this is how she is - give her a challenge and see her rise, don't give it and you'd never guess she had it in her.

It's so very different from what I've read about other gifted kids over the years. That drive for knowledge doesn't seem apparent, and in it's absence I think she would just happily play (albeit she may make rather interesting patterns and sequences with her toys). Maybe she gets lots of stimulus and input that we don't realise from all our household activities and conversations and her intellectual needs are met already?

I don't think she's dumbing down. I haven't heard her say anything negative about being bright, and she takes great pleasure in her maths, but I suppose that's one possibility.

As you can see I'm still trying to work this out! She's attending a small local school that have been very good at meeting the elder's needs, and I've let them know the results of the testing. So we'll see how it goes!

Does anyone else have kids who don't fit the "typical" profiles? I strongly suspect that if this one was our first child, it wouldn't have occurred to us to have her tested. I wonder if there is a sub-group of gifted kids whose presentation means they're much less likely to be identified - even by parents or researchers in the area. The profiles don't really describe them as they aren't so clearly different in behaviour from the norm.

Anonymous said...

Never underestimate the power of the gifted label. I have two younger siblings that were profoundly damaged by my label and its consequences.

I was diagnosed as gifted and went through a horrendous, bungled education, alternately skipping and repeating years until I hated everything about school. I eventually got to grammar school but by then I'd had enough. I left as soon as I could.

My parents were young and had little experience of small children, other than with me. As my siblings did not learn the same things as me at the same ages, they were labelled as 'average'. No attempt was made to help them with work at home, and it wasn't even considered that they may go to grammar school like me. Both got average grades and left the system as early as possible, disillusioned and feeling worthless.

I grew up feeling guilty and hiding my abilities as much as possible. My brothers grew up feeling isolated and resentful about the unequal treatment they received from our parents. Luckily, we are so close that our baggage did not affect our strong friendship.

Only my parents were surprised when it turned out that both my siblings are exceptionally bright. It's taken twenty years for my brothers to even start to understand the real reasons why they felt so different, and so socially isolated as children. It's heartbreaking, because it was so avoidable.

All parents should remember this - it is self confidence, self esteem and motivation that creates a successful adult, not a high IQ. Love and appreciate your children for who they are, regardless of their abilities, and you can't go wrong.

Jeremy said...

Fascinating comment! Thanks for sharing your story here too.

Anonymous said...

My son is gifted iq scored 139. My daughter passed the stage-2 test with 97 percentile. She still needs to take another test. My two kids are so different from one another. I remember my son at two years old talking about space at the dinning room table. Honestly, thought is this normal. My daughter on the other hand could care less about science. She was into art and learning French.