8 Tips For Grandparenting Unequally Gifted Kids


How to navigate the uncomfortable notion that two grandchildren might be equally loved, but unequally gifted.

By Jeff Vrabel

Equal Love, Unequal Abilities

There's a secret, unspoken rule of family dynamics (well, there are hundreds, but this is one of them): Wherever you find families you find favoritism. Gather any group of relations for more than about 10 minutes, and you'll soon hear tales about who was (and wasn't) a shining golden child, even if all involved swear otherwise.

But what if there are actual discrepancies in children's performance -- academic, athletic, social, or otherwise? How do you navigate the uncomfortable notion that two grandchildren might be equally loved, but unequally gifted? And how do you encourage them to develop their different talents, while fostering self-esteem and a mutual appreciation among siblings, instead of rivalry and resentment? The answers, quite luckily, aren't as hard as you might think.

1. Realize That You're Treating Them Unequally

You (very probably) love your grandchildren in equal measure. You may brag about them equally, give them equal over-servings of pancakes and ensure you spend the same on them at the holidays. But despite your most sincere efforts, you're not being 100% fair, and that's important to realize. "Nobody's being treated equally, first of all," says Michael Brody, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist in Washington D.C. and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. "No matter what parents [and grandparents] say or do." Here's why:

2. Not All Kids Need The Same Things

It sounds counter-intuitive, but not all your grandkids need equally parceled amounts of love and attention. "Some kids just need more than other kids," says Dr. Brody. "I think in some ways, instead of a meritocracy, it's better to go with a system of so-called pure communism: Each according to his needs. (Grandparents and parents) should understand that there are some kids they just have to pay more attention to -- even if those kids aren't necessarily as terrific as the star."

3. Acknowledge Their Differences...

Nancy Davis, Ph.D, is an assistant professor and school counseling coordinator at Valparaiso University. She's also a mother of identical twins, a situation with its own wrinkles about comparing and contrasting. "The No. 1 rule is to have some sort of equitable distribution of time," says Dr. Davis. The next is identifying and reinforcing whatever it is they do best. "It doesn't always have to be about the giftedness of a person. It has to be about what they like, what they thrive at, what's their passion."

4. ... But Don't Emphasize Them

Dr. Davis says that there's an impulse to afford more responsibilities to a gifted child, which, naturally, is bad news for the other. "They might say, 'Well, there's two kinds of kids in the world -- there's gifted and there's me.' And that's not a good thing," she says.

But there's the potential for an ancillary problem there, too: When the gifted child starts thinking he or she has to be extraordinary all the time, take more on, watch out for the other siblings. "(Gifted children) sometimes self-impose, because of the signals that parents or grandparents might give. Kids actually feel this, that they're getting all the attention, that they should help out more, that the more they shine the more it makes their siblings look bad." Again, the solution is to emphasize each child's individual gifts.

5. If There Are Setbacks, Acknowledge Them

Sylvie de Toledo is founder of the organization Grandparents as Parents and co-author of Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide to Raising a Second Family, which will be re-released in June. She's also the mother of two girls, who compete in horseback riding competitions -- and not always to equal results. When that happens, she makes a point to affirm them both. "I think you say 'You really tried your hardest, and not everybody can win every time. And just because you didn't place today doesn't mean you're not a wonderful rider or swimmer or artist," she says.

6. Recognize the Weight of Your Own History

Dr. Brody says that three-quarters of his practice is made up of grandparents. "Most of it has to do with complaints about their own children -- not the grandchildren," he says. "But they forget they raised their own children!" Fairness, he's found, has a lot to do with how the parents themselves were treated.

And most of what he sees as a psychiatrist is done on a subconscious level, where caregivers identify with children based on their own birth orders, or gender, or physical resemblance to themselves or a favorite child. Dr. Brody said he once dealt with a set of triplets whose father's parents became really involved with one but discarded the other two. "They were too young at the time to have had it based on being a great soccer player or whatever," he says. "I think it's the way the kid looked, resembling the grandparents more, and it created a lot of conflict."

7. Be Aware of Your Influence in Your Kids' Lives

All parents, Dr. Brody says, remain interested in what their own parents think of the job they're doing. "If parents would remember what it was like when they were teenagers, things would go much smoother in families," he says. So remain mindful of your continued influence over your own children. If parents identify a certain child as the star you may feel a natural tendency to follow along -- but that works in reverse too. Make sure you're not subconsciously favoring someone, because your child may pick up on your clues.

Find the Children's Strengths...

Every child has gifts -- they just might not all be in what culture has come to define as commonly accepted "strengths," such as academics or athletics. "Maybe one is more artistic, or enjoys sewing," says de Toledo. "Maybe one is a good cook. But if you hone in on the things they are good at it, it might not make as big an issue for the things that they are not." Moreover, de Toldeo discourages competition between siblings in such an instance. "You want to do things that encourage them to be close, instead of distant from each other."

8. ... And Affirm Them

The end goal, of course, is for each child to become individuated and accepted on his or her own merits. "You want children to thrive as themselves, not as a remnant, because someone else is shining brighter," says Dr. Davis. "You don't have to challenge them to rise to some elusive standard of a brother or a sister. You look at what they do best and cultivate that."

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