Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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It's so relative ...

Q: Is the success of a sibling a blessing or a curse? Last week Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo acknowledged that it hasn't been easy to be the half brother of President Barack Obama. How difficult is it to live with the success of a brother or a sister, even if they aren't famous?

Venus and Serena Williams. George and Jeb Bush. The Kennedy brothers. Famous examples of successful siblings, sometimes rivals, often the children of parents who fostered competitiveness as a means to ensure excellence.

Jimmy and Billy Carter. Richard and Donald Nixon. Bill and Roger Clinton. For some people, having a brother become president of the United States brings out strange and even nefarious behaviors. Difficult family histories sometimes accompany the stories of siblings acting out badly in the shadow of another's success.

Having grown up with six siblings, I may have more than a passing fascination with famous familial rivalries and notorious rogue relatives. Fortunately, I have none of the latter (that I know of!). Each of us has a small claim to success in our own ways -- one is a well-respected historian with numerous books published, another works with a famous collegiate sports enterprise, another is an entrepreneur, and so forth -- but when we are together, we talk mostly about shared experiences from our childhood (summer camp escapades), as if to avoid the more treacherous terrain of appearing to brag about career accomplishments. My mother, of course, collects all the clippings and videos of each member of her flock, but is judicious about equal time for gloating over all, perhaps lavishing even a little more attention for those whose clipping books are slim.

As any school counselor can attest, parents have immense influence on the ability of siblings to cope with the inevitable unequal distribution of success. Parents who repeatedly praise one child's success while implying that other children are slackers can be responsible for years of therapy bills, to say nothing of countless unpleasant holiday dinners.

For many children, the desire to escape the shadow of sibling success becomes a driving force in selecting a college. When I greet prospective students, I have learned that it can be a real deal-breaker if I say, "Oh, I'm so glad you're considering Trinity, your sister Sarah was a great student, I'm sure you will follow in her footsteps!" The last thing a college freshman wants (or needs) is the legacy of some brilliant older sister to shadow her through every class.

Some siblings do thrive on each other's success. Peyton Manning was thrilled when his youngest brother Eli led the New York Giants to an upset victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. Of course, it helped that Peyton was already wearing his own Super Bowl ring from the previous year's championship.

Rare are the siblings who are so talented that each can match the other's success in the same game. In the unique alchemy of families and sibling relationships, true success is often measured by internal values such as caring for elder parents or disabled relatives. Realizing the wisdom of "success is relative" can help to maintain harmony among siblings whose life choices -- and perceived levels of success -- are vastly different.

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 9, 2009; 1:12 PM ET  | Category:  shadow of success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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