Hey, Kids, Equal Is Not Always Fair and Fair Is Not Always Equal
1. What's the most common reason parents treat their children differently?
Parents most commonly treat their children differently because of gender. Unintentionally, parents often impose their preconceptions of what it means to be male or female, which influences their decisions and behaviors. Parents can and should instill in their children the belief that gender stereotypes should not influence decisions or limit their potential — boys can be nurses and flight attendants, and girls can be scientists and firefighters. This process begins by discussing and learning about so-called “girl things” for sons, and vice versa.
2. When is it acceptable to treat a child differently than his or her sibling?
Because each child is a unique individual, interactions between each parent and each child will also be unique. Children can understand and accept this differential treatment, as long as there is constructive dialogue and clear explanation in the home. For example, if one sibling has a learning disability, then it’s appropriate for the parents to spend more time helping that child with homework. Or if one child is particularly fearful in new situations, it would be appropriate for parents to focus on acclimating her to new surroundings.
In households where one sibling needs consistently different treatment than other children in the home - if a sibling is very ill or has persistent behavior issues - it’s important to carve out time for the sibling who does not need special attention. It’s also important to let the more typically developing or healthy sibling express his desire for special attention when he needs it. Children who need increased attention should get it, but it’s important to recognize the needs of other siblings who also struggle with issues and need focus, support and attention of their own.
3. How can parents teach siblings to provide emotional support?
It’s important for parents to recognize that children learn by watching their parents, siblings, and other family members interact with each other. Intentionally or unintentionally, parents model how to provide emotional support in the way they treat other members of the family. Offering cues to your child regarding why a sibling may be upset, teaching her to listen to someone in distress, and allowing for the ventilation and validation of feelings helps the child develop empathy.
Children most often do not mind if a sibling is being treated differently or getting more attention as long as they understand why it’s happening. Children often want to help comfort a distressed brother or sister, and parents should encourage this. Communication is vital for promoting a sense of fairness in the home. Children can be taught that equal is not always fair and fair is not always equal; different children have different needs at different times.
The idea that siblings can help each other and work as a team to face challenges together is a valuable life lesson. The key is to promote cooperation and find opportunities for kids to help each other. For example, a younger sibling may be called on to help find a lost book.
So it is acceptable to offer differential treatment when the situation warrants it, but parents should be aware of their behavior and how a child might interpret that behavior. Open and frequent communication, just as in any other type of relationship, is crucial to promoting positivity in the home.
Do you have a story about preferential treatment or how you manage it in your household? Feel free to share with me in the comments.
Christina Nichols, PhD,is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 15 years experience helping children and adults cope with anxiety, stress, neurological and learning differences. She is a psychologist for The Hallowell Centers in New York, and a learning specialist and the coordinator of academic support at a leading independent school in New York City.
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