Parents will tell you that each of their children has a definite and unique personality from birth. Therefore it is unreasonable and ineffective to try to treat them all the same. It also happens to be impossible. It makes more sense to treat each one as an individual rather than as an equal part of a group.
A friend once came to me and said, “I have a problem I wonder if you can help me with. My younger son (4) has some physical problems and takes a lot of time and attention. His older brother (12) resents this and does all sorts of things to get my attention, especially tormenting his brother. What can I do?”
“Maybe you should try to spend some time with your older son, one on one, and don’t even mention the younger one,” I said. “Tell your son how important he is to you and how special he is because he’s the oldest. Tell him something specific about himself that you especially appreciate. In other words, let him know how he’s unique and valued, and how much you love his uniqueness.”
Later, when I was telling my family about this conversation, my own teenage son said, “Way to go, Mom! That’s right on.” I felt I’d received the stamp of approval on that one.
When children know they’re loved for themselves, they are then free to care about their siblings instead of competing with them for their parents’ love and attention. Then wonderful things can happen.
One Christmas Aaron was 15 and longed for a silver trumpet. He loved playing the trumpet but was not improving as much as he wanted to. With a silver trumpet, he felt his music would greatly improve. The cost of such an item would total what we spent on our whole Christmas, and Aaron resigned himself to waiting a couple years before he could save enough from his paper route to buy it himself.
But Lloyd and I wanted to give him that trumpet as much as he wanted to receive it. So, after discussing it with the rest of the family, we decided to take out a loan and buy it for him. When we brought it home, we showed it to his sisters. Emily (14) was so excited she couldn’t keep still and had to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep from squealing. As a fellow musician and closest in age to Aaron, she appreciated perhaps more than anyone else what that gift would mean to her brother.
On Christmas morning, when he saw the trumpet, Aaron’s eyes opened wide and he whispered, “Oh my...” His hands shook as he took it out of the dark brown velvet-lined case. When Emily leaned over to take a look, she put her hand on his back and could feel his heart pounding. Emily’s gift was a simple pair of earrings, but she says it was one of the best Christmases she ever had, and so do her sisters. If we had tried to give equal gifts, nobody would have experienced the same joy they all did that morning.
Children want to be loved uniquely, not equally. To be loved equally is somehow to be loved less. When your little girl climbs into your lap, looks up at you with her big eyes and asks, “Who do you love best?” our knee-jerk reaction is, “I love you all the same.” That is not the answer she’s looking for, however. She’s really asking, “Tell me how much you love me.” A better response would be, “You know I love all of you, but there is nobody else like you. Nobody hugs me like you do, or draws me such pretty pictures, or helps me set the table like you do.” This response is answering her unspoken need and is much more satisfying.
Misguided attempts at equality can backfire. Jennifer had a friend, Beth, who received a beautiful dictionary for her 18th birthday (obviously this was before the days of cell phones). I don’t think my kids would have been thrilled with a dictionary, but Beth was very pleased and looked forward to taking it to college with her. A couple of months later, Beth’s parents gave her brother (16) the same dictionary for his birthday. Beth told Jennifer she felt like she hadn’t received a special gift at all, and that her parents thought her 18th birthday was no big deal. Jennifer told me about Beth, then said, “Stupid parents! Can’t they see what they’re doing?”
It may not be reasonable to treat kids equally, but it is important to treat them fairly, which is not the same thing at all. I know a couple who have a daughter, Katy, who loves ice skating and is very good at it. They buy her special skates and costumes and drive her all over the state so she can compete. When their other daughter, Lori, who is interested in computers, asks for money for software, the answer is always, “We can’t afford it right now.” The implication, of course, is that Katy’s interests, and therefore Katy herself, are more important than Lori. How is that going to affect the sisters’ relationship?
At sixteen, Kristen was having a terrible time in school. I knew something had to change. I was even considering home-schooling her. At a family reunion that summer, I talked to my brother Ron about it. He suggested she could come spend the year with his family in Wyoming. Kristen jumped at the chance.
As hard as it was to let her go, she spent her junior year of high school with them in Cheyenne, and for the first time in years, she enjoyed school. She went through some homesickness, and a few clashes with a different family style, but overall it was a good experience for her. When she returned home for her senior year, school was no longer such a nightmare.
This turned out to be the best solution for Kristen’s problem, though it might not have worked for any of the other kids. They weren’t jealous of her adventure because they all felt just as important and knew their special needs would also be considered as carefully as hers were.
The benefits of a good sibling relationship can have a lasting effect (so can a bad one, but we won’t go there). My sister and two brothers and I are still great friends, even though we live all over the country and seldom see each other. I wanted the same for my children. I had hopes when I heard Josh say, “I figured out that everything I know, Jennifer taught me.” One day the mother of one of Josh’s friends heard him say to her son who was acting up, “What you need are some sisters. They’d keep you straight.”
One of the most gratifying things a parent can see is their children as friends.
When Ellen was a junior in high school and Ben was a freshman, they often ran together to practice for the cross country team. I asked Ellen if Ben held her back since she was in varsity and he was JV. She said, “Maybe a little. But frankly, Mom, whenever you do something with Ben, it’s more fun.” When Emily was married and had one little boy, her siblings knew she had no decent pots and pans although she loved to cook. All the kids with jobs pitched in and bought her a beautiful cookware set. As thrilled and touched as Emily was with the surprise gift coming out of the blue, the others were even more excited to be able to do that for her.
Jennifer once said when I commented how happy I was that they were all such good friends, “Don’t you remember, Mom? You wouldn’t let us be anything else.” We always felt a great affinity for the family in the book Cheaper by the Dozen. The authors, Frank B. Gilbreth and his sister, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, dedicated it “To Dad, who only reared twelve children, and to Mother, who reared twelve only children.” Perhaps the secret of the harmony in our home was revealed when Jennifer said to me, “Each one of us believes in our heart that secretly we are your favorite.” And they’re all right.