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BYU study shows comparing siblings academically can be harmful. Image ©Dollarphoto.com/Thomas Perkins

Comparing Siblings Can Have Negative Impact Academically

We feed them, cloth them and sign them up for classes in hopes of helping our children succeed but parents may unwittingly be harming their children’s abilities by comparing them to a sibling. In a recent study published by Brigham Young University, BYU professor and lead author Alex Jensen found that a parent’s belief about his or her child may influence who that child ultimately becomes.

The study published in the Journal of Family Psychology compared siblings and academic achievement in a northeastern state. Jensen and his co-author Susan McHale from Penn State asked parents of 388 teenage first- and second-born siblings to rate which child did better in school. In most cases the parents believed the firstborn was more academically gifted. However, on average, the siblings’ performance was quite similar.

The study suggests that parents’ opinion of their children were not influenced by actual grades, but the teenagers’ future grades were impacted by the parents’ beliefs about them. Those children who were believed to be smarter tended to do better in the future while those who were considered to be less academically able tended to do poorer. Researchers found that translated to a 0.21 difference in GPA among participants.

“That may not sound like much,” said Jensen. “But over time those small effects have the potential to turn into sibling who are quite different from one another.”

Researchers say these beliefs about a child’s ability to succeed are often formed early in a child’s life. Parents may be influenced by the fact that the older sibling is doing more complicated subjects in school at any given time. They are the first to learn to read and write.

Jensen and McHale found the exception in the study was when the firstborn was a brother and the younger sibling was a sister. Most often in those cases, parents believed the sister to be more academically capable. According to the study, parents often view older siblings and daughters as more competent.

“To help all children succeed, parents should focus on recognizing the strengths of each of their children and be careful about vocally making comparisons in front of them,” said Jensen.