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Maternal labeling of gifted children: effects on the sibling relationship.

ABSTRACT: The present study examined the impact of maternal labeling of children as gifted on the sibling relationship. Subjects were 144 pairs of firstborn and secondborn siblings classified according to maternal perceptions into one of four groups: both gifted, firstborn gifted, secondborn gifted, or neither gifted. Five aspects of the sibling relationship were examined: Warmth/Closeness, Status/Power, Conflict, Maternal Partiality, and Paternal Partiality. Results indicated that unlabeled children generally did not view the sibling relationship more negatively than their labeled siblings. However, there was consistent evidence of labeling effects which interacted with birth order. Maternal labeling of firstborn children was associated with greater Warmth/Closeness in the sibling relationship. but maternal labeling of secondborn children appeared to have the opposite effect of reduced Warmth/Closeness.

* Parents of high-ability children often express concern about the effects of gifted labeling on siblings. Several authors have suggested that the identification of one child in the family as "gifted" could indirectly imply that a sibling is "not gifted" (Ballering & Koch, 1984; Cornell. 1983, 1984; Fisher, 1978, 1981; Grenier, 1985; Robinson, 1986). Do unlabeled siblings resent the positive status accorded to a gifted brother or sister, or feel that they are less favored by their parents? Could differential labeling of one child as gifted have an adverse effect on the sibling relationship? The present study examined children's perceptions of their sibling relationship when one of them is labeled gifted by their mother.

Sibling Adjustment. Previous sibling studies investigated whether siblings of gifted children suffer from low self-esteem or other indications of adjustment problems. Cornell (1983, 1984) found that nongifted siblings of gifted children were less well-adjusted than nongifted children who did not have gifted siblings. In a subsequent study, Cornell and Grossberg (1986) did not find adjustment problems in a group of unlabeled children whose siblings were placed in a gifted program at school. However, the subgroup of children perceived as less gifted by their mothers had lower self-esteem and higher anxiety than their gifted program siblings.

In contrast, other studies have not found adjustment problems in siblings of gifted children. In a study of twins, one of whom was placed in a gifted program, Renzulli and McGreevy (1986) concluded that differential placement did not result in "serious long-term problems" for either sibling. Robinson, Chamrad, and Janos (1987) found that differences in adjustment between siblings were related to birth order and sex of siblings, but not to differential school placement of siblings in gifted or regular programs.

Colangelo and Brower (1987a, 1987b) reported that gifted siblings were concerned about the impact of their labeling on their nongifted sibling, but the authors found no actual differences in self-esteem between students placed in gifted or regular programs. Although the apparent absence of self-esteem problems among unlabeled siblings is encouraging, it is conceivable that these siblings were unwilling to acknowledge their feelings about not being labeled gifted. It is noteworthy that only 19% of the unlabeled siblings in the Colangelo and Brower study (1987a, 1987b) returned their questionnaires. In addition, it may be that parent labeling, rather than school placement, is the factor which influences sibling reactions to a gifted child.

Sibling Relationship. Other studies examined the sibling relationship rather than the adjustment of unlabeled siblings. Several authors have proposed that the positive status accorded to a gifted child may trigger increased feelings of jealousy, rivalry, or resentment in siblings not recognized as equally gifted (Bridges, 1973; Cornell, 1984; Ross, 1972). In a study of pairs of brothers, Pfouts (1976, 1980) found that the less-able brother felt hostility toward the brother who outshined him. In a questionnaire study of siblings, one of whom was placed in a gifted program, Grenier (1985) concluded that competition appeared to be beneficial to labeled children. For unlabeled children however, competition had the negative effect of inhibiting cooperation and damaging the sibling relationship.

Still other studies found that gifted children harbor some negative views about their nongifted siblings. Robinson, Chamrad, and Janos (1987) reported that gifted children provided less positive descriptions of their nongifted siblings than did their siblings of them. In addition, Ballering and Koch (1984) found that gifted children assigned more negative affect to the sibling relationship than nongifted siblings.

The Present Study. Previous studies have often relied on school placement, rather than parent perception, to distinguish gifted from nongifted children. However, siblings may be more sensitive to parent labeling than to school placement. In addition, parents often disagree with school placement as an indication that a child is or is not "gifted" (Cornell, 1984; Cornell & Grossberg, 1986, 1989; Fisher, 1978). The present study examined the impact of parental labeling of children as gifted on the sibling relationship, controlling for the effects of school placement. Consistent with previous research (Lamb & Sutton-Smith, 1982), the effects of birth order, age spacing, and gender of siblings were also examined as control variables. Maternal labeling rather than paternal labeling was selected for study, because it was expected that mothers more often than fathers would perceive one of their children to be gifted (Cornell, 1984, 1989).

It was hypothesized that unlabeled siblings would perceive the sibling relationship more negatively than would labeled siblings within the same family. In addition to this within-family hypothesis, it was predicted that there would be between-family differences in how sibling pairs view their sibling relationship. The effects of dyadic labeling combinations (whether both children were labeled, neither was labeled, or whether just the firstborn or secondborn child was labeled) on the sibling relationship were examined.



The sample was drawn from the pool of 819 students who attended the University of Virginia Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) in 1989. The summer program is a 2-week, academically-oriented residential camp for high-ability students in Grades 5 through 11 from Virginia and surrounding states. Applicants to the program submit teacher recommendations, standardized achievement test scores (when available), and essay responses to a series of application questions about student interests and activities. The program admits approximately half of its applicants,

Subjects were recruited for the study by a letter to parents requesting permission for family participation and providing criteria for inclusion in the study. In order to limit the variation in family size and composition, the sample was restricted to families in which: (a) the child attending the summer enrichment program was the first or second child born in the family; (b) firstborn and secondborn children were between the ages of 10 to 16 years old; and (c) two parents (including stepparents) lived in the home.

In order to assess the selectivity of the sample inclusion criteria, all students attending the summer program were surveyed about their family size and composition. Ninety-two percent of the students (756 of 819) returned usable surveys. Survey results indicated that 30% (226 of 756) fit the criteria for participation in the study. Of these families, 64% ( 144 of 226) eventually completed all portions of the study.

The mean age of firstborns in the sample was 14.3, while the mean age for secondborn siblings was 11.8. The grade level for firstborns ranged from 5 to 12, with a mean of 9.4; for secondborns, the grade level ranged from 3 to 10, with a mean of 6.8.

Achievement test scores were available for 84 (58%) of firstborn siblings in the sample and for 82 (57%) of secondborn siblings in the sample. For both firstborn and secondborn siblings, mean achievement test scores were at or above the 92nd percentile in Reading, Language, and Mathematics Concepts. Group IQ scores were available for 31% of firstborn siblings and for 35% of secondborns. Firstborns had a mean IQ of 132 and secondborns had a mean IQ of 133. Additional subject information is reported elsewhere (Turtle, 1991).

Instruments and Procedures

Mothers were administered the Maternal Perceptions Survey (MPS) (Tuttle & Cornell, 1990) by phone. The MPS is a semistructured interview developed by the authors and derived from previous work by Cornell (1984) and Cornell and Grossberg (1986). During the interview, mothers responded to questions and provided numerical ratings of each child's abilities on a 5-point scale. Mothers reported whether they used the term "gifted" with each child and whether they thought of each child as gifted. Mothers also provided information on the school placement status of each child. Finally, mothers reported education and occupation of both parents, which was combined into an index of socioeconomic status (Hollingshead, 1975).

Two independent raters reviewed transcripts of mothers' responses, which were written by the interviewer during the interview. Raters made a dichotomous judgment of "gifted" or "not gifted" which best described the mother's perceptions of each child. Raters were blind to which children attended the Summer Enrichment Program. Raters achieved a 89.6% agreement rate for firstborns and a 91.7% agreement rate for secondborns. When corrected for chance by the Kappa statistic (Cohen, 1968), agreement was .75 for firstborns and .83 for secondborns.

Each sibling completed the Sibling Relationship Questionnaire-Revised (SRQ) (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985), a 38-item Likert format questionnaire. Evidence for the reliability and validity of the SRQ is reported by Furman and Buhrmester (1985) who constructed 17 scales to encompass the most common qualities children identified when asked to describe their sibling relationships. The internal consistency coefficients (Cronbach's alpha) of all but one scale (alpha = .63) exceeded .70 (average alpha = .80). Test-retest reliability for the scales over a 10-day period ranged from .58 to .86 (average r = .71).

Based on a principal components factor analysis, Furman and Buhrmester (1985) constructed four SRQ factor scores: Warmth/Closeness, Status/Power, Conflict, and Rivalry. Items on the Warmth/Closeness factor measured the degree of intimacy, companionship, and affection in the sibling relationship. The Status/Power factor contained items measuring the nurturance, dominance, and caretaking behavior of one sibling over another. The Conflict factor measured the degree of quarreling, antagonism, and competition between siblings. The Rivalry factor measured the degree of perceived parental partiality of one sibling over the other.

In this study, Rivalry was divided into Maternal and Paternal Partiality scales and scored to show direction of favoritism (for self or sibling). For this sample, the internal consistencies of the five SRQ scores (Warmth/Closeness, Status/Power, Conflict, Maternal Partiality, and Paternal Partiality) ranged from alpha = .63 to .91, mean = .79.

Families were mailed two copies of the SRQ with instrnctions for each child to fill out the SRQ independently and return it in a separate envelope. Mothers were interviewed by phone following the collection of data from sibling pairs.


Preliminary Analyses

Maternal Labeling and Gifted Program Attendance. Fifty-four percent (77 of 144) of both firstborn and secondborn siblings in the sample attended the SEP. Thirteen percent ( 18 of 144) of the remaining firstborn siblings attended this program or a similar program in a previous year, but 34% (49) had never attended an enrichment program. Eight percent (11 of 144) of secondborn siblings attended this program or another one in the past, but 39% (56) of secondborns had never attended an enrichment program. In addition, 12% (17 of 144) of the participating families had two children attending SEP during this study.

Seventy-six percent (110 of 144) of firstborn siblings and 67% (96 of 144) of secondborn siblings were considered gifted by their school. Maternal and school labeling were found to agree in 75% (105) of cases for firsthorns and in 74.4% (105) of cases for secondhorns. There were 10 firstborns labeled gifted by their mothers but not placed in school programs, and 25 firstborns placed in gifted programs but not considered to be gifted by their mothers. Similarly, there were 13 labeled secondborns not in gifted programs and 23 unlabeled secondborns placed in gifted programs.

Maternal Labeling and Perceived Ability. In order to elucidate the child characteristics associated with maternal labeling, mothers were asked to rate their children's abilities in six areas: academics, art, creativity, leadership, music, and social skill. Mean ratings were compared by matched pairs t-tests for the subgroup of families in which the mother perceived one child as gifted and the other as not gifted. As reported elsewhere (Tuttle, 1991 ), labeled children were rated significantly higher than unlabeled children in all six categories.

Sibling Age Spacing. Age spacing between siblings was correlated with each of the five SRQ scores for firstborns and secondborns. Status/Power scores were positively correlated for firstborns, r = .27, p < .01, and as might be expected, negatively correlated for secondborns, r =-.20, p < .01. In addition, age spacing was negatively correlated with Conflict for firstborns, r = -.16, p<.05 and positively correlated with Warmth/Closeness for second borns, r =. 16, p < .05. No other correlations were significant (Tuttle, 1991).

Socioeconomic Status (SES). SES was correlated with each SRQ score (Turtle, 1991). Only one correlation was significant. SES was positively correlated with Warmth/Closeness for firstborns, r = .21, p < .01.

Sibling Gender. Gender differences for firstborns and secondborns on the SRQ were also examined. The only significant finding was that firstborn males reported more sibling conflict than firstborn females, t (143), = 2.61, p < .01. Detailed results are reported elsewhere (Turtle, 1991).

Next, correlations between firstborn and secondborn siblings on the five SRQ scores were calculated. All five pairs of SRQ scores were significantly correlated at the .001 level. In contrast, there were few intercorrelations among the other combinations of SRQ scores. Results are reported in Table 1.

Primary Analyses

Sibling pairs were categorized according to maternal labeling status into four sibling groups: both gifted, neither gifted, firstborn gifted, or secondborn gifted. Each SRQ score was analyzed by a two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) with birth order (firstborn or secondborn) as the repeated factor. Table 2 presents the means and standard deviations for the 8 cells in the five 4 x 2 ANOVAs.

For the Warmth/Closeness score, there were no significant main effects but there was a significant interaction between birth order and sibling group, F (3, 140) = 4.00, p < .01. Follow-up analyses (not included in Table 2) revealed that labeled firstborn siblings reported greater warmth than their secondborn siblings, F (1, 94) = 5.64, p < .05. Labeled firstborn siblings also reported significantly greater warmth than did unlabeled firstborns, F(1, 142) = 6.03, p<.05. For secondborns, however, the pattern of results was quite different. Labeled secondborn siblings reported less warmth than their firstborn siblings, F(1, 86) = 10.59, p < .01. In addition, there was a near-significant trend for labeled secondborns to report less warmth than unlabeled secondborn siblings, F(1, 142) = 3.56, p = .062. This pattern of group differences is displayed in Figure 1 which presents the group means for each type of sibling dyad after z-score transformation, so that the magnitudes of group differences across SRQ scores are easier to compare.

For Status/Power scores, there was a significant main effect for birth order, with firstborn siblings reporting more power than secondborn siblings, F(1, 140) = 222.85, p < .001. None of the other comparisons for Conflict, Maternal Partiality, or Paternal Partiality were significant.

In order to control for the effects of potentially confounding variables, the analyses were repeated employing family socioeconomic status (SES), age spacing, and gender of each sibling as covariates. A significant interaction was found again between birth order and sibling dyad type on the Warmth/Closeness factor, F(3, 139) = 4.01, p < .01. Also, a significant main effect for birth order was found again on the Status/Power scores of the SRQ, F(1, 139) = 230.2, p < .001. No other significant main or interaction effects were found on the remaining SRQ scores.

The repeated measures ANOVAs were repeated employing the school label of first and secondborn siblings as covariates. There was a significant interaction effect between birth order and sibling dyad type on the Warmth/Closeness scores, F(3, 133) = 3.93, p < .05. There was a main effect for birth order on report of Status/Power, F (1,133): 202.62, p < .001.


A mother's perception that her child is gifted should be distinguished from the child's placement in a gifted program. Although there is a high concordance between maternal labeling and school placement, in this study labeling differed from school placement for approximately 25% of both firstborn and secondborn children. This included children placed in gifted programs whose mothers did not perceive them as gifted, as well as children not placed in gifted programs whose mothers nevertheless did perceive them as gifted.

Mothers clearly distinguished labeled from unlabeled children. Labeled children were rated higher than their unlabeled siblings in academics, art, creativity, leadership, music, and social skill. The findings of several studies suggest that parental labeling may be more important than school placement in influencing family reactions to a "gifted" child (Bailering & Koch, 1984; Colangelo & Brower, 1987b; Cornell, 1984, 1989; Cornell & Grossberg, 1986, 1989; Renzulli & McGreevy, 1986).

The central interest of this study was the association between maternal labeling and the sibling relationship. Contrary to the within-family hypothesis, unlabeled siblings did not have a more negative perception of their sibling relationship than did their labeled brothers or sisters. Generally, there was modest agreement between siblings in all qualities of their relationship measured by the Sibling Relationship Questionnaire (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985).

Agreement between siblings in their perception of their relationship does not mean the absence of relationship problems. Between-family comparisons might identify relationship problems associated with maternal labeling. The major finding of this study is that labeling was associated with a more positive report of the sibling relationship when firstborns were labeled, but a less positive report of the relationship when secondborns were labeled. Labeled firstborns reported a warmer, closer sibling relationship both in comparison with their unlabeled siblings and with unlabeled firstborns. In contrast, labeled secondborns reported less warmth and closeness in their sibling relationship than either their firstborn siblings or unlabeled secondborns. This pattern is illustrated in Figure 1.

The interaction between labeling and birth order for sibling Warmth/Closeness remained significant even after controlling for sibling age spacing and gender, family SES, and school placement of each sibling.

Report of power in the sibling relationship was primarily a function of birth order; as clearly illustrated in Figure 1, labeling appeared to be irrelevant. This finding is not surprising in light of previous research indicating that much of the variance in Status/Power could be accounted for by the relative age of siblings (Furman & Buhrmester, 1985).

In view of common parent concerns about gifted labeling, it is worth noting the absence of statistically significant group differences for sibling conflict and parental partiality. It does not appear that maternal labeling of a child as gifted by itself will lead to greater sibling conflict. The means presented in Figure 1 suggest that labeled children might be perceived as favored by their mothers, but the group differences were not statistically significant. There was no interpretable pattern associated with paternal partiality, although the collection of paternal labeling data in this study might have produced clearer results.

Giftedness and Birth Order

Why would gifted labeling be associated with a more positive sibling relationship for firstborns and yet a less positive relationship for secondborns? Perhaps giftedness is an attribute more congruent with family roles and expectations associated with firstborns than secondborns. Firstborn children are often stereotyped as more achievement-oriented or academically talented than secondborn children (Ernst & Angst, 1983; Pfouts, 1976, 1980; Pulakos, 1987).

Studies of families with gifted children have found that firstborns are more often recognized as "gifted" (Barbe, 1956; Cornell, 1984), although it is highly doubtful that firstborns are actually more capable than secondborns (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Silverman and Waters (1987) found that parents often failed to recognize that their secondborn child was gifted, even though this child was just as able as their firstborn child.

The presence of a secondborn gifted child may create tension or disequilibrium in the family. Fisher (1978) found that parents reported the least difficulty in the sibling relationship when the gifted sibling was the eldest child. Problems of competition, favoritism, and jealousy were most apparent when the gifted child was younger.

In her study of 37 two-boy families, Pfouts (1980) found that, while family relations were harmonious when the firstborn sibling was the clear academic achiever, problems were evident when the secondborn was more academically inclined or when his abilities rivaled those of his older brother. The more-able younger sibling reported greater hostility toward the older brother. Pfouts concluded that family socialization and dissimilar treatment by parents shape firstborns' academic overachievement even when secondhorns are more intellectually gifted. This created a disadvantageous position for the more-able secondborn siblings.

Study Limitations and Directions for Future Research

As all research which employs a quasi-experimental design, this study does not demonstrate a causal relationship between maternal labeling and the sibling relationship. Although this study hypothesized that parental labeling influences the sibling relationship, other causal models may be in effect. For example, sibling behavior may influence maternal perceptions in a way that encourages differential labeling.

Parental labeling deserves further study since parental attitudes toward giftedness and their conceptions of giftedness may mediate labeling effects. In addition, parents who think of their child as gifted still may vary in their use of the term and the expectations they communicate to their children. Two studies (Cornell, 1989; Cornell & Grossberg, 1989) found that parent use of the term "gifted," but not parental belief that a child was gifted, was associated with less favorable child adjustment.

This study did not investigate ways in which family members might compensate for labeling in a way that reduces the negative impact on siblings. For example, Tesser's Self-Esteem Maintenance Model (1980) predicts that children will attempt to reduce the relevance of areas where their siblings outperform them, and in this way maintain positive feelings of self-esteem. Unlabeled

siblings may value and pursue alternative areas of performance in order to avoid comparison with the labeled sibling. Similarly, Schacter (1982) suggests that siblings carve out contrasting identities and roles in the family as a means of mitigating sibling rivalry and conflict. The absence of rivalry or conflict between siblings may be due to the fact that the children have differentiated themselves and chosen contrasting areas in which to excel.


Parents frequently express concern over the labeling of one child and the impact it has on the unlabeled sibling. The results of this study suggest that labeling is not necessarily associated with negative effects on the sibling relationship. However, labeling effects differ as a function of birth order. While labeling is associated with a more positive relationship when firstborns are labeled, the relationship is less positive when secondborns are labeled.

Schools should strive to minimize the potentially adverse effects of labeling in how they present information to parents about a child's placement in a gifted program. It is not necessary to describe a child as "gifted" in order to acknowledge the child's high abilities and provide differentiated educational services. Parents might be advised that differential labeling is most problematic when it is the secondborn who is labeled. Perhaps problems arise when typical family expectations for the firstborn in academic achievement conflict with the child's actual abilities or aspirations. While these study results do not demonstrate that parents should refrain from labeling, it may be helpful to avoid overemphasis that either child is "gifted" and to encourage both children to excel in the areas that are most congruent with their natural abilities and interests.


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DIANE HOEKSTRA TUTTLE, Resident in Psychology, Arlington, Virginia Public Schools. DEWEY G. CORNELL (CEC #383), Associate Professor of Education, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Note: Diane Hoekstra Tuttle conducted this research as part of her doctoral dissertation for the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, University of Virginia. We thank the families from the 1989 University of Virginia Summer Enrichment Program who participated in this project. We thank Darci Lieb and Carolyn Callahan for their cooperation on this project. We also thank Julia Blodgett and Lori Wilson for their research assistance. This research was supported by a minigrant from the Appalachia Educational Laboratory.

Manuscript received February 1991, revision accepted September 1991.

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Author:Tuttle, Diane Hoekstra; Cornell, Dewey G.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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