Parents should not treat each child the same way PARENT Q&A

August 30, 1998|By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. | T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.,NEW YORK TIMES SPECIAL FEATURES

Parents who have more than one child often wonder how to treat each child equally. The answer is simple: You can't - and you shouldn't try to. Each child has a different personality and needs a different approach.

This is not always easy; it can be exhausting to try to shift gears for each one. Talking openly but nonjudgmentally about the children's differences can help. For instance, you might say to one, "You need me to speak softly." To another, "You always need me to speak angrily." This eventually gives them insight into themselves.

When a child tortures you by saying: "You're always nicer to him than you are to me," you can say, "You are very different people, which is great. I need to treat you differently. When I speak loudly to you, it's to make youlisten, but I am speaking just as lovingly even if it's louder."

If you don't get caught up in feeling guilty about the different feelings you have for each one, they needn't feel it either.

Children from large families, or those who are raised with other children nearby, seem to have an easier time in respecting each other's differences.

Children who are supported by parents, though in different ways, have the best chance themselves. By valuing each child's individuality and then conveying your awareness of his or her individual strengths, you'll support each one. As you make these strengths explicit, the child will be able to understand and value them.

You may have preferences for certain traits, based on your own experiences, but you don't need to pass on negative labels for other traits. If you can understand the basis for your own preferences, you will be less likely to pass them on in any $H pejorative way.

You should also realize that a child's age and place in the family will influence how he or she is treated.

The oldest child will always be a special child to his parents. This will be a mixed blessing. While he gets all the pressure and can suffer from new parents' mistakes, he also gets a very special relationship.

The eldest is likely to be given responsibility for a certain amount of baby-sitting, care-giving and housework. This kind of responsibility can give him a sense of competence and importance to his parents that will last into adulthood.

A second child may complain that no one loves her, that she is always "second," on and on. This will be compounded if she is a middle child. If parents can avoid feeling guilty, the child won't feel rewarded by her complaints and will eventually see that she gets her share, too.

Most second children become competitive and make up for being second by being successful at competing with the first.

Subsequent children will feel lower on the totem pole, of course. Their reward will be that they have many "parents." They will learn so much from their older siblings.

Parents need not feel guilty about what they themselves can't give to younger ones. In a tightly knit family, third and fourth children have a rich variety of mentors.

If the last child is treated as "the baby," he is likely to be indulged, and it will be necessary to be sure to expect as much of him as of the others. If he is too indulged and stands out in the family for it, he will devalue himself as "spoiled." As much as possible, it is wise to point out that learning to share and learning to participate equally is very much to his advantage.

In addition to birth order, sex differences play a part in how parents treat children.

Despite the desire of modern parents to treat children of either sex in the same way, the child of the opposite sex will have a particular appeal to each parent. You will inevitably treat children differently because of this.

Just as every little girl needs an admiring father to grow up to be a confident female, every boy needs a mother who believes that he's the greatest boy of all in order to develop a necessary belief in himself.

By reinforcing each child's individuality, parents can help reinforce a good self-image.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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