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Carolyn Hax: ‘Smart’ sister, sibling clashing

Sun., July 14, 2013

Dear Carolyn: I have always been the smart one. The sister was an average student, and I have always excelled in all areas of academia. This sounds conceited, I know, and I’m not writing off my sibling. She has many talents that I simply don’t possess.

My problem is that my sister despises me for my brains. I got better grades and more awards, and the attention paid to my successes made her feel horrible.

After graduation, she became a hairstylist and insists she loves her job. I went on to college. I love my university and my studies, but every time I mention school in any way my sister bashes the school and reminds everyone that she is out in the world earning money, not just studying “useless abstract things.”

I hate that my abilities have poisoned our relationship, but I think this is her problem, not mine. If she is as contented with her life as she claims to be, then she shouldn’t feel the need to bad-mouth my studies. How do I make the insults stop? – L.

How can I make the simplistic assumptions stop?

Maybe you were born many points brighter than your sister, and maybe that alone is what cut you out to be an academic to her mocker of all things abstract.

Maybe, instead, you and she are a lot like most other people, whose adult selves are a result of countless influences large and small, natural and nurtured, chosen and coincidental, under noses and out of view.

Maybe, for example, you babbled a 10-cent word at a surprising age, and your parents weren’t familiar with the hazards of drawing lifelong conclusions about intelligence in young children, and used mistaken assumptions to pop you into kindergarten at 4 and raise you to think you were brainy – at least compared with your sister – and as a result both of you built lives around ideas of your intelligence that don’t track with your actual gifts. Maybe she’s the “smart one,” but bloomed late and was never trained or encouraged to apply herself academically.

If there’s a grain of truth to any of this, then wouldn’t it be your parents who ultimately poisoned your sibling relationship, and not your giant brain? Not to make them the villains; they could have had the best of intentions to give each of you the right encouragement for what they perceived to be each of your strengths, and merely were wrong in what they perceived.

If instead there’s no truth to my alternate theory, then I still have this: You’ve nevertheless distilled to one simplistic narrative some of the most complicated things humanity has to offer, including family systems, self-determination and the nature of intelligence. Please give a nod to your academic aspirations and look at the relationship with your sister, and your paths in life, from all conceivable angles. Right now, you’re stuck in one position: defensive.

“Sometimes I think we haven’t changed our opinion of each other since second grade. I’d like to change that”: Maybe you’re not ready to offer this kind of peace overture, and she’s not ready to hear it as one, but I suspect if you opened your mind to alternate theories on your comparative excellence, then you’d be less assured of it. I also suspect she’d read this attitude change in you, and lower her dukes just a bit.

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