Brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee are going for gold in London tomorrow in the same race. As a father, I am blown away by the relationship these two young men seem to have and contemplate the likelihood that their relationship is a reflection of their parenting. Keith and Kathy Brownlee already have a lot of which to be proud. For me as a father, one of the most appealing parts of their story is at an event they were both racing in earlier in June in Oxfordshire, the gap between the brothers was so tight that they decided to cross the finish line arm-in-arm.
This got me thinking about my family's parenting efforts and our goal of making the most of our daughter’s individual talents, even when they have talents in common. Here are some of the things we do. Check back in 20 years to find out if we were successful in creating a sibling relationship as successful as the Brownlee’s.
Do not compare: Eventually some kids reach a place in their own minds where they think if anyone is better at something than they are; it means they ought to just give up at developing that skill. Comparisons are as damaging as labels. Encouraging self-competition seems to work better for our daughters. Improving on their last score or performance time, their personal best, encourages them to improve and keeps their sense of value intact. We set our girls up to cooperate. For example, they race the timer to pick up toys, instead of racing each other. We try to celebrate each child’s varied successes. We also tell them to remember no matter how good you are at something, there is quite likely someone somewhere, better, doing is not about being the best, it is about doing your best. Anyone can improve on his or her own best. Learn to enjoy your experiences and improvement without continually comparing yourself to your siblings.
Avoid Labeling: Yes, everyone is different. One child may be slightly faster with maths, another runs a bit faster, or has a lovely singing voice or especially beautiful eyes. However, allowing children to sort themselves based on this is limiting. Starting a pattern of seeing themselves through the eyes of others. It can limit children from trying something labelled as a sibling’s strong point. Labeling can also limit a child’s confidence in almost all other areas, they may be fearful of being less good at something else.
Equal Time: Make an effort to spend equal time with both of our daughters, without over focusing on the child who needs the most help at spelling, or math, or the child currently performing the best.
Family Strengths: Donnell and I avoid categorizing each other as good or bad at things because we think kids seeing parents as people full of possibilities and strengths means that regardless of which parent they identify with, their options to develop their skills stay open. We are aiming for a family culture that says we expect all our children to be smart and value challenge and this seems to create an environment where our daughters encourage each other.
Acknowledge Feelings: When one child feels insecurity about personal value because of a sibling’s success, we acknowledging those feelings and encourage our child to discover unique talents of their own. Both of our daughters love art and helping them understand the value of personal style has helped them stop the conversation about which of them might be better, and now they encourage each other to create new and different ideas and collaborate much better. We also ask them once in a while what some of the positive things their sister does that they really like and what are some of the things they do that might bother them or make them mad. This helps us track their relationship, and reminds us they have some positive feelings for each other.
Keep it fair: When one of the girls weeds a bucket more than the other we keep the performance scale realistic. The one who did more is paid more. Effort and attitude count.
Competition: It exists and we cannot change that, but we can encourage an environment where our daughters feel that we as a family are the home team. One member’s success touches us all. Cheer for your sibling and they will cheer for you. Donnell fondly remembers the girls on a playground at two, challenging themselves to reach a goal they kept saying to each other, “you do it, you do it.” We think they were mimicking our “You can do it” mantra.
We are encouraged by Keith and Kathy Brownlee’s sons. In an interview, Dr Brownlee commented about his sons, "They have been supportive of each other. They both recognise that neither would be where they are without the other. I try and persuade them to think about it as a family business. Kathy and I both just want them to finish the race healthy, intact and content. We're so proud that they've got this far. What comes next doesn't matter."
What a fabulous father.