When It's Okay to Treat Your Kids Differently & When It's Not

siblings brother sister

Toddlers may be quick to imitate their big siblings, and up until a certain age, matching outfits are all the rage. But as kids grow up, they grow into their own, and fostering their unique identities is just one of many jobs a mom has. "It's essential for a child to learn that they can be separate individuals and siblings at the same time, without having to be carbon copies of each other or to get exactly the same things from parents as proof of love," explains licensed psychologist Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. Still, there are instances where it may be more appropriate to treat your children the same. Just as there are those where you'll want to be sure to treat them differently.

Here, all the ways it's okay to treat your kids differently -- and the ways it's not.


DO treat them differently ...

  1. Because of their emotional needs. Some may say astrology is to blame, but no matter what you believe, kids usually have very different emotional barometers. "Kids are all very different when it comes to emotional support," explains licensed clinical psychologist Kate Roberts, Ph.D., contributor to EmpoweringParents.com. "There are vast differences in emotional intelligence. Some kids are gifted and get things very early on, while others struggle with social interactions. A crucial component of parenting is figuring out your child's style and supporting them to develop a strong emotional skill set. It is not wrong to recognize these differences. It is required to be an effective parent."
  2. Based on their personality. One of your children may be a social butterfly, whereas the other is a wallflower, and that's okay. "Introverted kids are happy doing their own thing and may not want to play sports or have big birthday parties," says Dr. Raymond. "Another sibling who may be an extrovert will thrive on lavish parties and social sports." 
  3. When it comes to their age. This may seem like a given, but it's an important one. "Of course, the younger the child, the more support is needed," notes Dr. Roberts. You may also want to adjust what's appropriate as far as entertainment, certain activities, privileges (like using an iPad or staying up to a certain time of night), etc., based on your children's ages. How you discipline might also be shaped by their ages. "Young children need very little discussion when disciplined," explains Dr. Roberts. "Just action -- take away the video game, put them in another room, down for a nap, etc. -- works. Older kids should be learning how to problem-solve and manage behavior better. Discuss strategies and approaches to internalize coping methods for behaving."
  4. Based on how they learn. "Children who have conditions such as ADHD require adjustments in approach," notes Dr. Roberts. Even if your child doesn't have a diagnosed learning disability, perhaps your eldest is more of a visual learner, while your baby is more auditory-oriented. "Parents are their children's most valuable teachers, and they need to figure out the best strategies to optimize the learning for each child," notes Dr. Roberts.
  5. When they have particular sensitivities. Whether your child has a specific allergy or has a strong personal preference for doing things a certain way, you'll want to cater to their needs. For example, Dr. Roberts notes about some children with sensory defensive issues, "What parent would put an itchy shirt on a child that would agonize over his wardrobe choice and be distracted all day if they knew of this trigger? They may help this child select outfits each day, even if they are older than another sibling."
  6. If they respond to different incentives and rewards."If one child likes getting money as a reward and wants to save it, and another prefers to have a play date, that's fine, so long as it's explained in a way that the children understand," explains Dr. Raymond. "Otherwise, they may misconstrue the actions as unfair or playing favorites."

DON'T treat them differently ...

  1. Based on their gender. This is a big one parents grapple with all the time, but that's because it is so important. Experts agree that to treat kids differently based on their gender is unacceptable. "Stereotypes exist in society because of the ways we parent and shape the next generation," says Dr. Roberts. "We need to work harder to erase the 'throw like a girl' negativity and continue to remove barriers to science, technology for females and nursing, beauty, etc., for males." What this means in practice: "If it's okay for a boy to play violent video games, it has to be okay for the girl," says Dr. Raymond. "It's important that gender doesn't become the basis for deciding who is strong or weak, or who is smarter."
  2. When it comes to bolstering family togetherness. "There are times when the family needs to be a family and all family members need to do things to support one family member," explains Carol Hinman, Ph.D., LMHC, member of the American Counseling Association. "Even if one child has absolutely no interest in sports, they should be required to attend some of their sibling's sporting events and to learn the basics of the game, just as their sibling should attend their concerts and should develop some understanding of musical concepts. It is important for children to develop some appreciation for others who are different from them." 
  3. When it comes to certain responsiblities and behaviors. "Parents should require all children to adhere to the same value system and have the same set of expectations for each child," notes Dr. Roberts. For instance, all kids should be expected to treat one another kindly and contribute to chores. A small caveat: "Depending on their age, children may require different levels of support to adhere to these, but the value set and family expectations should be consistent," explains Dr. Roberts.
  4. If you've already begun implementing a certain plan. Changing course mid-stream is a no-no. "You can't make a commitment to doing something a particular way, and then change your mind for no apparent reason, other than it's less hassle for you," says Dr. Raymond. "If you have allowed your 10-year-old son to make pancakes this week, but then have your 12-year-old daughter do it the next because he made a mess, you are treating them differently and discriminating in ways that can be shaming and growth-stunting."

How do you treat your kids the same -- and differently?

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