What is “Fair” for Siblings?

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The whole “she got more than me” thing (and all the variations of it) can drive a parent mad. Throughout the course of a day, there are so many things shared — both emotionally and physically — it’s impossible to be fair all the time. I remember a much desired melting popsicle dripping down my arm, and the effort I put into splitting it so both of my boys would get their fair share. Enough already! What is fair? Does it mean equal? Is it important to teach kids how to cope with imbalance? Nancy Samalin restores parents’ sanity with information we all can share.

— Laurel Moglen, Web Managing Editor

An interview with Nancy Samalin, M.S.

Many parents believe that being fair means that everything should be equal. That is, if we treat siblings the same, they’ll stop arguing about who got more, who gets to go first, or who’s the favorite. But they won’t—probably not even when they get to be adults.

Fairness doesn’t mean equal or the same. Trying to treat children “equally” is a little like trying to get out of quicksand: the harder you try, the deeper you sink. What parents need to do is treat their children “uniquely.”

Your kids don’t really want to be treated the same, no matter how much they clamor for it. Treating children identically tends to backfire, because you end up depriving them of what they really want — which is to be valued for who they are. Kids need to be celebrated for their achievements. Their efforts need to be noticed and rewarded.

The message behind the fairness complaint is really this: “Am I special?” “Do you love me?” “Am I worthy of your attention?”

What can parents do when kids compare each other?

Sometimes parents can change the focus from a child’s comparison to his or her individual need. For example:

Matt: He got more cereal than me.

Mom: You sound like you’re really hungry.

Matt: I am!

Mom: Okay. Show me how much more you want.

Not all inequities are as easy to solve, of course. If there’s one piece of cake with a rose decoration and three kids want it, you can’t make everyone happy. But kids have to deal with the unavoidable lesson that life isn’t always fair. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Next time, it will be your turn.”

To avoid fights over regular issues as who had what last and whose turn it is next, let your children work out a schedule: whose turn it is to use the red crayon or choose the TV show. Then keep track of it on a calendar. Another strategy is to ask your children for their suggestions as to how to problem-solve.

Parents should be sure to lavish praise on their children when they’re sharing well: “I love it when my boys are sharing their toys so nicely!”

What about “who do you love more?”

Few things push parents’ guilt button more than, “You love her more.” Complaints of favoritism can put you on the defensive, but remember: Your children do not need to be treated the same.

First off — there’s never one right answer because each child is different and responds differently to the tone parents use and the words parents say. So, parents need to do their best to understand their unique child (their age, personalities, abilities, and moods) when thinking about how to answer this question.

Here are some possibilities:

  • If your children are mature enough, with advanced senses of humor, try saying what one of my client’s once answered (to big laughter) “Oh my goodness, you both drive me crazy in equal proportions!” But caution here, because you never want a child to misunderstand you or the joke.
  • Another way to answer is to pause. There is a real possibility that if you don’t respond right away, your child might start talking, giving you clues about what prompted the question, or perhaps their own answer to the question.
  • You can also, repeat the question back to your child: “Who do I love the best? Who do you think? Do you have any idea? Did something happen for you to ask this question?” The child might give you an answer to help lead your answer.
  • Or, you could say, “Who do I love more? You see these fingers? I need all of them, all of them are special. Just like you and your brother/s/sister/s.”
  • Or, you could say, “You are two different people, so I can’t possibly love you the same.”
  • Or, “I love you for all of who you are, and I love her for all of who s/he is.”
  • You could also ask the child, “Do you love Mom and Dad the same?” Giving them a question to think about, can help start dialogue. Dialogue is always best.

Now, if you think your child is asking the question because s/he is hurting, then address the feeling first. For example you could ask, “Is that how you really feel? What do you think is making you feel that way?”

When kids get competitive in a hostile way, what’s the best way for parents to react?

In general, I think it’s best for parents to stay out of the conflict and let the kids work it out. But, we all know that’s not always possible — especially if things start escalating too much. To this end, you might want to say, “Do I have to separate you two? Or can you work it out?”

I think it’s also useful to say, “I will not let one child I love hurt another child I love.” This is better than saying, “Leave your baby brother alone!” In this way, parents take the blame out of the conflict, and focus on the end result that involves both (or more) kids.

Keep in mind, when you have two siblings not the same age, and they’re fighting, you’re not dealing with, for example, a six-year-old and a four-year-old. The older child will always sink to the level of the younger one. So, you’re dealing with two four-year-olds. It’s rarely the other way around, and parents should not expect the six-year-old to act more maturely in times of heightened emotion.

What’s the best way a parent can support a child when s/he feels they aren’t “as good” at something as their sibling — like drawing, or sports, or reading? 

When younger brother gets upset that big sister can kick the ball a lot farther than him, parents can say, “I know it’s frustrating he can kick the ball farther — but as you grow, you will get stronger and you’ll be able to kick the ball hard too.”

When someone you love is upset — speak to the heart first and head next. Empathize first. We want the child to feel understood. Avoid giving some kind of moral lesson — young kids won’t get it. Get in their shoes.

Nancy Samalin gives parenting talks and workshops throughout the country. She has written several books including Loving Each One Best: A Caring and Practical Approach to Raising Siblings.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Family, Learn, Siblings