Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I know you get a number of writers who have been treated differently from their siblings by their parents with respect to gifts, money, privileges, etc. Do any parents out there actually intend to treat their children differently?
I am asking because I was treated very differently from my sibs – still am – and I am expecting a second child now. I feel nervous about how it will change my relationship with my firstborn.
Treating Kids Fairly
What bad behaviors do any of us intend? Our minds are rigged to self-justify, so I have no doubt parents who play favorites – or employees who cut out early or authority figures who harbor racial biases or test-takers who cheat or grade-schoolers who bully or drivers who tailgate – see the merits of their choices.
The difference between the people owned by their frailties and those who behave honorably in spite of them is just a combination of self-awareness and a willingness to take on whatever discomfort comes with the good decision you need to make.
So when you find yourself preferring one child to another, you can either scratch that normal but highly consequential emotional itch, or you can step back, note your preference, and then make a point of blocking off special time with your currently-less-favored child, so you can work on your bond.
It’s not easy; you have to be patient. You have to find energy when you’re tired. You have to be careful not to pick your favorite activities when they set that child up to fail, and instead choose activities that bring out the better in both of you. Ask any baseball-hating kid of a baseball-loving parent how important this distinction is.
You make this effort because it’s right and because it’s good for you, too.
And you watch yourself from that point on to make sure you’re not turning a better face to either child, be it in the size of the cookie you hand out or the depth of the empathy you express.
If it helps, you’re in a good spot right now: You understand your power and how much harm you can do by abusing it. That’s good news for your babies.
Re: Favorite Children: Neither my husband nor I was the favorite child. In our families, those who needed the most got the most. While one child may be struggling in school or struggling financially and need more attention, try not to overlook the child who is following the rules.
My father-in-law describes my husband with such pride as a near-perfect child, and regularly says how much easier he was than his siblings, yet he spends much more time with his other children because they always needed him more. That time resulted in a closer bond over the years and no opportunity for my husband and my in-laws to grow close.
Excellent point, thank you. Your husband may well have been the “favorite,” but was not favored in the way it counts, in attention.
This is where a shared interest can be so helpful: Just noting a child’s passion – and supporting it, praising it, driving to lessons in it, shopping for its required equipment – can provide a framework for (pardon the expression) quality time.
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