Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I have two daughters. “Elinor” is a classic high-achieving firstborn who has always excelled in school; she attends a highly selective magnet school. “Marianne” is three years younger and has always felt herself to be in her sister’s shadow.

Marianne is a capable student, but nothing has been as easy for her as it has been for Elinor. Her tendency has been to define herself in opposition to her older sister: “If Elinor is interested in X, I am not going to be interested in X.” This is fine in many ways — I have encouraged Marianne to find her own activities and interests. However, it’s not okay with me for this logic to be applied to school.

So far Marianne has done well in school, but middle school looms and I am already seeing signs that Marianne is picking up the message that smart girls lose some social currency.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Elinor got that message, too, but she chose to be her own person and ignore it, thus becoming a nerdy, unpopular kid in the middle school pecking order. I sense Marianne is not willing to make that social sacrifice.

How can I help her navigate middle school and give her the academic support she needs, while at the same time not pressuring her to somehow replicate her sister’s experience? I don’t expect her to be an academic star, but at the same time, I want her to take pride in doing her best rather than holding back so no one thinks she is a geek.

Girls, intelligence, middle school, sigh

It sounds as if you need to freshen up the way you see and talk to your daughter. You’re both in ruts here. She’s seeing herself as the not-Elinor and you’re seeing her as the classic younger, not as the human wow you believe the elder to be. Both views fail to give M’s individuality enough room to breathe. Or E’s for that matter.

Start by pointing out to M that defining herself as the not-E, and reading her peers for cues, both limit her exactly where she most wants to soar — and that is in being whoever she pleases. That’s what all this is about, right? She blames the Elinor shadow for denying her freedom to define herself?

Well, the two escape routes she’s eyeing are both all about letting someone else tell her who she is. The only path that will satisfy her most basic longing is the one that suits her, by her standards, in her eyes.

Make this your message and be consistent — for her sake and your own, since you both have bad pigeonholing habits to break.

Also consider adopting the term that a reader offered in a recent reader-advice week: “Run your own race.” Doing well in school for M will look different from the way E does well in school — even if the grades are the same, because what matters is what they learn, how they learn and what other learning they’re motivated to do.

You can also take a constructive line on the value of school: Doing the work (note emphasis on work, not grades) feels like being shackled but it’s actually a path to freedom; blowing it off feels like freedom but it’s really a path to shackles. Real shackles, poverty shackles, shackles of ignorance, take your pick.

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