It was crawling around in the backseat. I was driving and couldn’t help her. My daughter hates bugs, but she was on her own to either live and let live or take care of it however else she saw fit.
I tried my best to reassure her. “It’s probably not even the kind of bug you have to worry about. You know who would be able to tell us what kind of bug that was if he was here? Your brother. He knows a lot about entomology, he was into it for a bit.”
“Axel knows everything. He’s the brain,” she replied. She didn’t say it resentfully. She even sounded a little proud of him, but she said it so assuredly, like it was just a fact.
Wait. What? Hold the phones. Is that the message she’s been taking away when her brother gets noted for his contributions to our collective knowledge-base? We needed to talk about this immediately.
“You know a lot about a lot of things, too,” I reminded her. “You’re just as much of a brain as he is.”
“Yeah, but it’s not the same. Axel just knows everything. I’m smart but he’s just so far ahead of me.”
“Umm, he’s nearly five years older than you. That’s why he’s so far ahead of you. He’s accumulated a bigger quantity of knowledge, for now, because he’s been alive five years longer than you. But his ability to learn things isn’t any more enhanced than yours.” I could tell she was thinking on it. I didn’t want to press the issue, so we just changed the subject. But it worried me.
My son got a lot of the admiration and responsibility that older siblings often get, and my daughter has been by default the “baby” of the family, even though she’s a highly driven, Type-A achievement collector. I realized there may be a dynamic at play I’d never realized, that she was internalizing it, and potentially attributing it to gender.
Later that week, I was driving somewhere with her brother, and I mentioned it to him.
“So, this week in ‘Things That Are Ridiculous,’ Gigi thinks you’re smarter than she is.”
“What?” He had this look on his face like I’d just tried to tell him the Easter Bunny was real, or that climate change wasn’t.
“Seriously. Because you know more stuff right now, she’s assumed it’s because you’re just inherently the smart one.”
He shook his head. “That’s crazy. She was sitting with me yesterday, doing my algebra homework with me because she wanted to get the hang of it early. She tries so hard to keep up with where I’m at, because she thinks I’m ahead. But what she doesn’t realize is she’s actually outpacing me. There will be a point in time when I hit a learning plateau, and at her pace, she will not only catch up, but she’ll zoom right past me, probably.” He was very probably right.
“Well, you know how you sometimes do that big brother thing where you act like you just can’t believe she doesn’t know something that you take for granted people should know? Maybe that’s not a good thing to do anymore, even though you didn’t mean to be condescending. Maybe look at those teaching moments and think back to when you were her age and remember that you didn’t know a lot of those things yet, either.”
He looked genuinely regretful at how that kind of stuff probably seems in retrospect. Brothers and sisters antagonize each other with those little daily micro-aggressions. It’s a thing they will always do, even if they deeply love each other and get along great. But sometimes we don’t realize how our words or our attitudes about helping each other learn can come across to the person who’s feeling like a newb.
“Can you talk to her about it at your next opportunity? Tell her exactly what you just told me?” I already knew his answer. He thinks his sister hung the moon.
“Yes. I will take care of it.”
Between their talk and my concerted efforts to make sure that I was telling my son, in front of his sister, that he should check in with her on things she’s really strong at, her confidence was definitely bolstered. Her organization and time management skills are stronger than his. When she was asked to help him stay accountable for his due dates, she stepped up to the plate and it looked like she grew two inches instantly.
It’s crucial to realize we send little messages we aren’t even aware we’re sending every day, just by virtue of who we bestow authority on and who never gets tapped as an authority on anything within our families. By encouraging my kids to equally avail themselves of each others’ strengths, I think we avoided perpetuating stereotypes, and we certainly became much more aware of watching out for stereotypes creeping into anyone’s self-perceptions on our watch. It’s not a one-time fix. It’s an ongoing project. But we all get our turn to be the “smart one.”
Angie Aker is a Buffy enthusiast, a virality mad scientist, a Poet Laureate, an up-and-coming author, and The World’s Okayest Mom. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter if you like ladies who push the envelope and sometimes their luck.