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Don’t treat siblings equally, treat them fairly

We spend a lot of time trying to give to our children equally. But maybe the focus needs to be instead on what’s fair: some kids need more help, time, and/or attention than others. Can we love them equally and parent them fairly?

Brother and Sister Back to Back

It’s starts so innocently. “Set the table,” you say to the child who finished her homework twenty minutes ago and has been slack-jawed in front of the television ever since.

“Why do you always tell ME to do it?” she shrieks, as if you have ordered her to scrub toilets with her personal toothbrush. “Why doesn’t SHE have to?” The pronoun is accompanied by a jerk of her
thumb towards her sister, who is still buried under her books, struggling to complete her own assignments.

Later in the week, you sit with your son, the reluctant reader, with his new nightly assignment of 20 minutes of reading to a parent. You make up a schedule with your husband and figure you’ll both
have to find a way to work it into your busy days, because it’s what your kid needs. No sooner have you started the book when the daughter who escaped the table setting shows up to whine. “You
never read with me,” she says, or at least you think she does — it’s hard to understand anything at that pitch.

It’s not fair. The battle cry echoes around the world, hurled at parents by children everywhere.

Acknowledge but don’t apologize

Your kids are crying out to be heard, so listen to them. Acknowledge the truth of what they’re saying, but don’t apologize for what you need to do. “I know that you set the table last night, too.
Your sister is still doing her homework. She’ll be in charge of trash cans tomorrow morning.” “Ryan needs extra practice reading. When we’re done, I can spend some time on your math with you.”

As difficult as it is, resist the urge to tell your kids that life isn’t fair. They’ve figured that out already, and you swore you’d never say stuff like that to them, didn’t you? Here’s a trick
that works surprisingly well: when your kids respond to your rational explanation with another round of, “It’s not fair!” don’t say anything. Just go back to whatever you were doing, and don’t
respond. Most kids will stand there sulking for a moment or five, but will then do what they were asked.

Explain and expand

Later, when everyone is calm, talk to your child. “You were really upset when I told you to set the table. How do you think we could have handled that better?” Your kids might have some creative
ideas — maybe the table can be set the night before, or after breakfast in the morning.

With a child who claims she never gets your attention, offer it to her. “It’s important for me to read with your brother each night. But you and I can have a special date on Sunday to get hot
chocolate. Would you like to do that?”

Offer reassurance that your time is not the same as your love. “I love all of you exactly the same. But sometimes one of you needs more from me. When you’re sick, I spend most of my time worrying
about you. When Ryan needs help with school, I spend more time with him. When your sister has a lot of homework, I have to help her. That’s my job.”

As your kids find that their protests don’t garner a response, and as they come to understand the logic behind your decisions, the outbursts should lessen. They’ll likely never disappear
completely, though. It may not seem fair, but neither is life.

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