Those with siblings know what a golden child is, the sibling who can do no wrong in the eyes of their parents, despite how hard the other sibling(s) try to get that same level of recognition, affection, and validation. Golden Child Syndrome is a real disorder, defined by The Himalayan Times as, “the idea that you should only show love towards your child if it improves or includes their achievement.” Many Mishawaka High School (MHS) students find themselves torn between becoming who they want to be, and who their parents think they can be, based on their achievements in school in comparison to their sibling(s).
“It is hard for parents and teachers to remember the anxiety and the stress that everyday school puts on students. So then, when you do have an older sibling that is doing really well, it just magnifies everything that the next sibling does,” said MHS Social Worker, Mrs. Gayla Konanz.
“What we know about anxiety is that it shuts down your functioning. So when you’re anxious and stressed anyway, that diminishes your ability, then you have all of this subliminal pressure just thinking that others are comparing you to a sibling really just makes it so much harder...It just brings the person down,” continued Konanz.
One anonymous student who experiences the anxiety that Konanz described said, “I have a brother who’s a grade older than me, and my sister is two grades younger than me … My brother took most of the classes that I’m in now last year when he was in my grade, and with the grades that he got, my parents don’t say that I need to be as good as him, but it just feels like that’s the standard now… His GPA is amazing. I can’t get those grades… He was able to get those grades and not be affected by it mentally, which is a big problem for me.”
Dylan Piazzoni, a junior at MHS, finds himself in a similar situation with his half-sister, who’s a grade younger than him. He said,
“We have a good relationship overall… (but) my sister definitely gets better grades than me, so, I feel pressured to try and do better, which in turn makes me feel more pressured and not want to try as hard.”
Emma Loftus is also a junior, and although she is an only child, that does not make her invincible to facing pressure from her parents to do well in school. She knows all too well how cripplingly anxious it can be to feel that you have to fulfill the impossible standard that is perfection. She said,
“Whenever you have siblings, you have the outgoing sibling, or the rebellious sibling, or the good kid- and as an only child- I feel like I have to take on a little bit of everything. But at the same time, I will do the same kind of stuff as my cousins and my parents will say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that and you shouldn’t do that.’ So it makes me think, ‘Wait, so should I do all of this, or just be this one perfect child?’ I try to balance that out too much.”
Loftus shared that her precedence for academic perfection is because, “I’ve had it figured out since kindergarten that if I’m good at school I’ll get rewarded for it, and so now I’m deathly afraid to do literally anything that would potentially displease them [her parents].”
Junior, Tia Stopczynski finds herself fortunate enough to not feel the same sort of pressure being put on her by her parents. “I have a little sister, Ava, an older brother, Tyson, and an even older brother, Jake… My parents don’t want academics or school to get in the way of our relationship as siblings, so I think they try to keep it separate. To their friends, they brag about what we’re each good at, so it will make us all feel good.”
“We’re all our own person so it doesn’t really come into conflict. I have tried to carve my own path,” she added.
Sophia Dentino, another junior, has an older sister and is herself the twin of a brother. From her perspective, she said,
“I feel like my brother and I both definitely agree that if there was an outright golden child in our family, it would be the eldest, because we’ve noticed that she’s gotten some things that we don’t think we’re going to get.”
She explained, “There are a lot of logistics that go into being twins. We are siblings, just like a regular brother and sister, but there’s a key difference in the sense that we've had to share things since we were young that other people have not: birthday parties, phones, (etc). We’ve gotten so used to sharing and being together so often that we don’t have a lot of regular sibling rivalry.”
Not all of the rivalry between siblings involves school. Dentino mentioned, “... What my sister and I have isn’t much of a rivalry, I was just jealous of her. None of it, for me personally, has to do with school... I’ve just accepted that I’m the black sheep of the family.”
Having said that, academic award ceremonies nonetheless can be, and more than often are, a catalyst for jealousy between siblings to spike. The ceremonies give parents who subconsciously practice Golden Child Syndrome a reason to do so, despite the fact that siblings know they are supposed to be happy for their sibling(s).
“I’m a little bit jealous. From the sports aspect, my sister is really good at cross country and I’m not. For me, it’s just like, ‘I’m older so I’m supposed to be better,’ but I’m not. It makes me feel not very good about myself,” said the anonymous student.
“As a parent, I know that my kids hate being compared to each other, especially in school...They won’t be in the same activities because they don’t want to be associated with their sibling,” said Physics teacher, Mrs. Amy Foley.
“I get more excited about their [my siblings’] successes than I do about my own… My siblings all call me the golden child, so I don’t want to succeed and make them feel bad. I get really excited when they succeed at things, so that they don’t feel like I’m trying to outshine them or anything… They say that I have the personality where I one-up them,” said Stopczynski.
Having siblings being put through the same school system with the same classes and teachers as you can be stressful no matter your birth order, especially with a small age gap. The idea that birth order influences a person’s attributes and personality is a concept that historical analysts, literary scholars, and English teachers know goes as far back as the transcendentalists of the Romantic period. Older siblings may feel obligated to leave behind a good reputation in the classroom, and younger siblings may find it difficult to live up to the precedent set by their sibling. Or, as Konanz pointed out, the opposite is true,
“I’ve also worked with kids who have siblings that have been really naughty with bad behavior and have not made good choices. It’s interesting because it’s really similar for younger siblings to get out from the negative connotation with that family name, or the experience the teacher had. If a younger sibling does anything similar, they [teachers] lump them [students] in with the negative.
“I think it’s very close to the same with a star student and younger sibling, because if they [students] don’t do it [act like a star student], then they’re lumped into a different category. It’s hard (for us) to remember that everybody processes things differently.”
On this subject, Stopczynski said, “One of my brothers went to a different high school and the other is nine years older than me, so we didn’t really have the same teachers, but it did happen in elementary school.
“Tyson was the jock; academics weren’t his thing. I don’t think I felt pressured by teachers that I was going to turn out bad or anything. They saw me as an individual student, but I still wanted to make sure that they knew I was academically better than Tyson.”
As the middle child of their family, the anonymous student gave their experience. “I’ve definitely had teachers in the past who were like, ‘Oh, are you such and such’s sibling?’ It’s annoying.
“I do feel a little bit of pressure because I know he’s [their older brother’s] a good kid. He’s quiet, but not too quiet, and I’m more introverted than him, so I feel like the teachers wish I participated more like he does. But, they don’t really say anything about it besides in the beginning of the year.
“For my sister, I do feel pressure to leave a good impression on a teacher, just because I don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh, that’s such and such’s sister. Better watch out for her.’”
As a teacher, Foley offered insight to this communicational and expectational conundrum between students and teachers. She said, “I have lots of siblings that come through [her classroom]. I usually will make a comment at the start of the year, asking how their sibling is doing if I haven’t seen them in a while, but then I try not to bring it up anymore unless they do.
“I try purposefully not to talk about their sibling(s) because I want them to know that I’m focusing on them and that they’re the one I’m interested in. It's great that I know someone else in the family, but it’s important that we have a relationship,” she emphasized.
“My individualism has not completely been lost, but it feels like I’m always connected to my siblings. They’re always going to have a little bit of an influence on people’s ideas of me, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” reiterated the anonymous student.
In totality, there is nothing wrong with wanting success and striving for it, but sometimes, even when students apply themselves and give their full potential, it won’t lead to the desired results. This is because society champions a school system that is not, and frankly cannot be, tailored to every child’s individual needs.
“The modern education system was designed to teach future factory workers to be ‘punctual, docile, and sober,’ said Allison Schrager for Quartz News.
While progress has been made through the years to encourage inclusivity among students in school, the pressure, primarily from parents, for students to fit into a vague mold where one size is supposed to fit all, “mentally makes me feel like less of a good student, or just that I’m not up to my parents standards,” said the anonymous student.
It’s more important now than ever before to remember that doing your best doesn’t indirectly mean success, especially in today’s society where the words “success” and “perfection” are used interchangeably. Every student should have the opportunity to show their individualism, to try, and to fail, without fear of parental disappointment or hysteria. Loftus reminds us all that, “Being perfect isn’t possible. I keep trying (to be), but I’m learning I can’t.”
For any struggling student, Konanz offers this tidbit of advice, “Just because your older sibling is a star student and it seems to come naturally, that is just not true for people across the board. Be patient with yourself, ask for help, seek out those trusted adults that you can talk to… Reach out to people that can help you set yourself up for success, but define success for yourself. The mantra is, ‘I am not my sibling. I am me. I am unique, and that’s all I can be.’”