Care and Feeding

Brotherly Competition

One son’s naturally gifted, the other has to work to succeed. How does a mother curtail growing resentment?

Photo illustration of two teenage sons, close in age.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Camrocker/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two teenage sons just less than two years apart in age. The elder boy is and has always been intense, with a powerful drive for mastery in whatever activity he tries and an almost painful need to know and understand. He was one of those toddlers who peppers his parents every waking hour with “why” questions, and in some sense, he never outgrew that phase. He’s a smart kid and does well in school.

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His younger brother is by contrast relaxed and dreamy, not exactly incurious but content to leave questions unanswered and hobbies unmastered. He also does well in school. The thing is, he is off-the-charts intelligent.

I think either approach to life can lead (or not lead) to happiness, so I see no need to try to change either of their dispositions. The problem is that my older boy is frustrated to tears with what he sees as the mismatch between their reaches and grasps. He thinks about all he could accomplish with his brother’s intellectual horsepower and resents his brother for not “making more of his gifts.” It kills him that he will grittily try to figure out a problem or learn a skill, and if he gets stuck, his younger brother looks at it with a yawn and figures it out without much apparent effort.

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I know siblings don’t love each other the way parents love them, but I want to try to help them get along and appreciate each other. I am afraid that my older son’s bubbling resentment will drive them apart. How can I help them with this dynamic?

—A Stroke of Genius

Dear ASoG,

This belongs to them now and not to you.

Of course you care and of course you feel personally invested, but there is a difference between contributing your thoughts and wisdom to a situation and being responsible for its outcome. And adolescence is right when it’s time to start learning that difference.

It sucks for your eldest that he is consigned to play Salieri to his little brother’s Mozart, but his life lesson here is that them’s the breaks. Sometimes people are just better than you at stuff and that’s how it goes. That doesn’t mean you’re not valuable, smart, or worthwhile; it just means that if there’s 7 billion people on planet Earth, some of them are going to solve math problems easier and more quickly than you will. You can tell him that he can waste all the time he wants wishing he had his brother’s brain, but there are probably amputees wishing they had his legs and they can’t understand why he just uses them to sit around complaining about how easily his sibling does his algebra homework.

But your role here is as an adviser, not manager. Your kids have and will always have a complicated relationship with one another, of which many pieces will have little or nothing to do with you. All you can do is share your wisdom and take whatever moments you can to remind each child that you love them. And when one is feeling down, tell them you believe in them—not generally, but specifically in them. Good luck.