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If you’re a parent to more than one child, chances are you’ve been accused, at some point or another, of playing favorites.

Maybe your 10-year-old is upset that her 13-year-old sister is allowed to have an iPhone and she isn’t.

Perhaps one of your children has a learning challenge and requires more help with school work, leaving his sibling feeling neglected.

It’s normal—and even healthy—to treat children differently. After all, they’re each their own individual person with unique needs. But how can you honor their individuality without making it seem like you’re playing favorites?

The Dos and Don’ts: When You Should Treat Your Kids Differently—and When You Shouldn’t

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As a mother myself, I know that YOU know you’re not actually playing favorites. Many factors contribute to our daily interactions with our kids: their personality, age, maturity level, even their birth order! 

Consider the experience of a first-born child. They’re brought into the world by parents who look at them like deer in headlights—completely inexperienced when it comes to raising a baby. This child may recall being the center of attention, with Mom and Dad anxiously monitoring their every move.

The second-born child, on the other hand, will probably have a different experience—in large part because their parents feel more confident and at ease the second time around.

The truth is, no two children experience the same family in the same way. And no parent experiences each child the same way either! Each kid is unique—and their individuality is precisely why we can’t treat them the same way all the time.

When considering your kids’ individual needs, DO treat them differently according to:

  • Personality. You can’t expect an introverted child to have the same hobbies or activities as an extroverted child. Encourage your kid to identify what interests them and be supportive of what they choose—whether it’s sports, ballet, drama, painting, or even reading quietly by themselves. 

Tailor your approach even when prodding your children to make friends. An introverted child may be more comfortable with a one-on-one playdate, while an extroverted child might enjoy group activities.

  • Age. It’s normal for a younger child to complain when their older sibling is allowed to do something they’re not. But as the parent, it’s important to stand your ground about what’s developmentally appropriate for each kid.

    Be firm but empathetic about why, as a 7-year-old, your kid can’t drink coffee or go to the mall on their own. Acknowledge their frustration and let them know you understand their disappointment. That acknowledgement will help them release the negative emotion and let the issue go.
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  • Special needs. If your kid has a learning condition, allergies, or any type of special needs, by all means cater to them. Encourage their siblings to practice being considerate and supportive of each other’s special needs, too. If one child is allergic to nuts, for example, ask your other children to be selective about the food they share at home and have alternative food options their sibling can eat.

That said, don’t forget to give time and attention to the kid who doesn’t have special needs. Some children are so good at being the “strong, supportive sibling” that they don’t know how to ask for help from their parents when they need it. So be proactive about checking in with them!

  • Maturity level. Not all kids have the same level of maturity at ages 5, 10, 15. Some children are more mature than others, and should be treated accordingly to nurture their autonomy and independence. Still, navigating these considerations can be difficult for parents, as I learned firsthand.

When my daughter Pia was in 6th grade and we were living in Hong Kong, I left for an extended work trip. Upon my return, I found out that Pia had started taking taxis on her own. My husband was comfortable with this milestone, but boy was I unprepared! 

We ended up resolving this conflict through effective communication. The truth of the matter was that Pia was ready and responsible for that level of independence. Luckily, my daughter understood that it was me who had a problem with fear, worry, and letting go. She supported my needs and came to a compromise by agreeing to text me her whereabouts whenever she took a taxi on her own.

When considering your kids’ individual needs, DON’T treat them differently when it comes to:

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  • Implementing value systems. Your expectations for behavior and responsibilities should be consistent among all your children. Let your kids know that everyone is expected to be kind, considerate, and helpful—inside and outside the house. No exceptions.
  • Showing appreciation. Whether you’re attending your daughter’s field hockey game or your son’s piano recital, be their biggest cheerleader. Celebrate who they are and how they choose to express themselves. 
  • Spending quality time. It’s important to spend quality bonding time alone with each child. Schedule a “Mommy/Daddy and Me” time at least once a month with your kids—and hold that time sacred and immovable. Every day spending 20 minutes one on one with each child in child directed activity time can keep each child’s cup filled and prevent the negative attention from happening as a substitute.

Treating your kids differently doesn’t mean you’re playing favorites. It means you respect your children as individuals with varied needs and desires. 

Explain to your kids why they require different treatment from you at times. But let them know that when it comes to the question of who your favorite is, the answer is “no one”—because you love them equally.

Love and Blessings,