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Dear Dr. Yael,

There is a great deal of sibling rivalry between my two boys who are a year apart.

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Our ten-year-old son is very tall and taller than his older brother. This leads many people to assume that the younger one is older.

They both do well in school and have friends, but this one mistake seems to upset our older son very much. He takes that frustration out on our younger son.

Dr. Respler, do you have any suggestions for how we can deal with this and help build the self-esteem of both our sons?

Concerned Parents

Dear Concerned Parents,

I want to start by telling you a story about sibling rivalry.

There were two brothers, a short older brother and a tall younger brother. Now if you were a child and had a younger brother who was taller than you, it would probably not feel so good. So it was with these two.

One day, while the two were playing outdoors, the older brother snuck up behind his younger brother and pushed him into a ditch. As the younger brother stood up in surprise, his older brother gleefully said, “Look who’s taller now!”

The brothers’ father, Reb Shmuel of Lubavitch, the Maharash, saw the whole thing. The Rebbe asked someone for a chair and then asked his older son to stand on it.

“Tell me,” he asked, “who’s taller now?” The older brother excitedly answered that once again he was taller. “Aha!” said Rabbi Shmuel. “To be bigger than your friend, there is no need to pull him down. Simply pull yourself up!”

I think it would be helpful if you shared this true story with your sons.  You should also speak with them about this issue – separately and together.

Explain to your younger son how hard it must be for his older brother and have him help you build his older brother’s self-esteem.  Compliment them when they are loving to one another and being positive, and try to spend time with each one of them.

Make sure that you don’t label them or place them in certain boxes. When children are labeled as doing best in a certain area, they often do their best to prevent another sibling from encroaching on their domain. Often, parents think they are helping kids find their strength when they label them as the “smart one” or the “creative one.” However, sometimes it leads them to believe that it is all they are good at and they need to own that strength. This can cause them to feel threatened by a sister or brother who is as good in math or better in sports than they are.

Thomas Edison (1847–1931) was one of the most important inventors in history. As a young child, he came home one day from school, and gave a paper to his mother. He told her, “My teacher gave this paper to me and told me to only give it to my mother.”

His mother’s eyes were tearful as she read the letter out loud to her child: “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him and doesn’t have enough good teachers for training him. Please teach him yourself.”

Many years later, when his mother had died, Edison went through her papers. He found a folded paper in the corner of a drawer in a desk. On the paper was written: “Your son is addled [mentally ill]. We won’t let him come to school any more.”

Edison cried for hours and then wrote in his diary: “Thomas Alva Edison was an addled child that, by a hero mother, became the genius of the century.”

If his mother had allowed Thomas Edison’s teacher to label him as “addled,” he never would have become the person he became.

Right now, your older son seems to have been labeled, “the short one,” and this is obviously negatively affecting his self-esteem. It is imperative that you help him see that he is much more than his height and have him focus on his many strengths! One way to do this is by giving him a notebook in which he writes down five things he succeeded at every day. Spend a few minutes before bedtime reviewing the list with him – it can be your special time together. It will take some time, but it should make a difference in how he sees himself.

As to other people’s insensitive comments, unfortunately that is not something we can change. However, once your son feels better about himself, he will find it easier to deal with they way others speak to him.

Please let us know how it goes. Hatzlocha!

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Dr. Yael Respler is a psychotherapist in private practice who provides marital, dating and family counseling. Dr. Respler also deals with problems relating to marital intimacy. Letters may be emailed to deardryael@aol.com. To schedule an appointment, please call 917-751-4887. Dr. Orit Respler-Herman, a child psychologist, co-authors this column and is now in private practice providing complete pychological evaluations as well as child and adolescent therapy. She can be reached at 917-679-1612. Previous columns can be viewed at www.jewishpress.com and archives of Dr. Respler’s radio shows can be found at www.dryaelrespler.com.