The Biggest Loser host Alison Sweeney recently divulged a parenting secret to the world — something we almost never say out loud: She parents each of her kids differently.
And so do I.
Even though I count the pieces of candy that go into Easter baskets and Christmas stockings so my kids all get the same amount, cut sandwiches into exact halves, and insistently reassure my children that I treat them all the same, I don’t.
Alison Sweeney doesn’t either. She and her husband David Sanov, who are raising a 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, have noticed that their children have different personalities and need to be disciplined differently. Sweeney encouraged parents to throw out the parenting advice and listen to your gut and go with what’s best for your kids. She said:
“People love to have ‘the best’ way of parenting, but it really needs to be customized to the kid you’re dealing with and their personality. My son is easygoing and sensitive, and he’s very affected if you’re disappointed in him — it breaks his heart. My daughter is a spitfire, and so we are stricter with her than we are with my son. He doesn’t need that, but with her, she’ll walk all over you to the moon and back. My kids are different people, so they need different parenting.”
Kids are different people, so they need different parenting.
I’ve found the same thing to be true of my four children. Some of my kids are more sensitive than others and feel internal guilt about things, while others don’t care as much and need more external consequences. The tough part is figuring it out. But since we spend so much time with our kids, the differences in their personalities become clear pretty early in life. While it may take some trial and error to figure out what kind of rewards encourage them and which punishments actually work, you just have to let go of the idea that each of your kids needs the exact same type of parenting from you.
Since I have a heap of kids whose ages span from second grade to twelfth grade, there’s a variance in ages and phases that they go through in addition to their personalities. My freshman daughter doesn’t get all the same privileges that my senior son has earned. They’re both in high school and she feels mature, so this doesn’t always make sense to her or “seem fair.”
I have one kid who rarely — almost never — asks for anything. He just has an innate sense of frugality. What he does have (clothes, toys) he values and takes care of. Consequently, I buy him pretty much everything he asks for, while I say “no” to the requests of my other children again and again.
“Ben gets whatever he wants!” my other kids say.
And they’re right. It’s hard for them to see that he wants less than they want.
Some of my kids have worse tempers than others and at different ages, they have a harder time controlling their tempers, so I pick my battles with them in a different way than I do with my more easygoing children. It’s true — if I’ve recently been through it with one of my kids arguing about a major sticking point like a curfew or a chore, I’m probably going to let some minor infraction go because I don’t want to damage my relationship with them. I might bring up smaller things with my more easygoing kids because they take it in stride and each interaction with them is not dramatic or intense.
Like Sweeney, I have children of varying sensitivity too. Again, this can vary through ages and phases, so I have to be really tuned-in to what’s going on with my kids and what phases they might be going through. The first year of junior high, for example, I don’t come down on my kids as strictly about academics as I might when they get into sophomore or junior year of high school because the first year of junior high can be a difficult social transition. But it all depends. Some of my kids have a much easier time getting homework done on their own and I never have to nag them. Others won’t do it unless I nag. You guys, there are so many factors!
My husband and I try to avoid any egregiousness unfairness, of course. We try to have integrity in our parenting and don’t let one kid get away with something another kid is going to be severely punished for. I’ve noticed that one child might be more motivated by positive reinforcement but will totally shut down if I punish them. I have two who are completely undeterred by the threat of grounding as a punishment because they are homebodies anyway. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter is a social butterfly who hates to have her playdates curtailed.
You just do the best you can with what you’ve got.
Sweeney is right — trust your gut and go with what’s best for your kids. Maybe your shy guy needs a little spoiling after a hard day of school and maybe your sassy preschooler can NEVER BE SPOILED BECAUSE IF YOU GIVE HER AN INCH SHE WILL TAKE A MILE. It happens. People are not the same and the same parenting approach does not always work for every kid. We talk so much about consistency and routines, but the unspoken truth is that most of us are flying by the seat of our pants just trying to get through dinner while also raising decent humans.