Somewhere on the list of Top 5 Least True Parenting Cliches (which are carved in stone and buried somewhere in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, if you’re wondering) is this whopper: “I love all my kids the same.” Whoever first said that was looking nervously at his kids, hoping no one noticed he was sweating.
Your job isn’t to make your kids feel like you love them all the same; it’s to ensure that they know the unique way in which you love each of them. “The trick is to really have a relationship with each kid that fits the needs of that kid, not exactly the same relationship,” says Guy Winch PhD, psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.
That can be easier said than done, of course — apples fall all sorts of distances from the tree, and your relationships with them always evolve. Still, Dr. Winch has some common sense tips for ensuring none of your kids ever feel you love one more than the other (even if, on some days, you totally do).
It’s About Quality Not Quantity
“The most important thing that I tell parents is ‘Find time to have one-on-ones with each kid,’” Winch says. “Kids will remember the hour they spent with dad every week doing this or that more than they will the whole family together.”
If schedules allow, try to tag-team this effort with the kids’ mom, since this whole spiel applies to her as much as you. And don’t sweat it if you throw the ball for 30 minutes with one kid but fish for three hours with the other. Time spent with each child depends on a number of factors — current drama in their life, availability in yours, activity length, etc. — so leave the stop watch out of this. In fact …
Equal Time Is Overrated
There are two kids in every classroom: the one complaining, “That’s not fair,” and the one answering, “Life’s not fair;” let your kid be the wise one.
“It’s just unrealistic to assume you can keep everything equal,” Winch says. “It’s not always, ‘I spent an hour with this one, now it’s time to spend an hour with that one.’ It could be that you need an hour with this one, but the other would be cool with 30 minutes because you can do something meaningful in that time.”
Equal Opportunities Are a Little Overrated, Too
Winch tells the story of a father with two sons born two years apart. The guy felt obligated to introduce the second kid to everything the first kid did, as soon as the second kid reached the age the first kid tried it.
“It took a few of these experiences for him to realize he was trying to impose on the younger one activities whether he liked them or not,” he says. “That wasn’t making the younger one feel special. The older kid was into those kinds of things and that’s why the dad did them with him. But he didn’t stop to consider what the other kid was into and would like to do with him.”
What to Do When One Kid Is Better at Pretty Much Everything
It’s not hard to find a walking paragon of parental expectations whose sibling is best known for failure. One way to avoid this fate is to “choose stuff for each sibling that is not a direct comparison to the other kid,” Winch says.
Don’t put your son in soccer if he trips on his shoelaces and his sister is a league star. Maybe try something with the hands, like rock climbing (or chess), instead. “If they can’t compare, they’ll be much more self-contained, and they’ll be doing fine,” he says. “And you can also be proud and reflect to them that they’re doing fine.”
Don’t Bring Your Issues into It
Maybe academics are hugely important to you, and maybe your first kid is a scholastic rock star; if Kid #2 winds up being more a “B” student, how you feel about that is less important than how Kid #2 feels about it. “They might not feel bad,” Winch points out. “They might just think, ‘Oh, hell — I have more friends [than my sibling].’”
“Kids have different abilities and shouldn’t be held to exactly the same standard,” Winch says. “They should be held to a standard that’s relevant to their abilities.”
It’s a good point, but maybe the biggest point is this: relax.
The fact that you’re concerned enough about favoritism to read this article is probably proof that it’s not going to be an issue. Just reserve one-on-one time for each kid and ensure they each have an activity to call their own. Also, don’t say, “You’re my favorite.”