I will never tell my children I love them the same. Because I don’t.
Having grown up in a home in which my mother declared (with the best of intentions) that she loved my sister and me exactly the same — I experienced first hand why that doesn’t work.
For years, I would look for signs to prove that she loved my sister more — or less. She was given more juice (I measured). Her birthday party was bigger. She got more clothes on the shopping trip. Other times, I felt vindicated when my snuggle with her lasted longer or when I was complimented more on my behavior. It never ended, this competitive nightmare.
My sister and I are so wildly different. How do you love such distinctly different people exactly the same? If we’d been similar, it surely would have been worse.
When I became a mother myself, I knew I had to take the whole “equal” conversation off the table. So instead, I tell my children that I love them differently. After all, they are different humans — and I love them for who they each are, as individuals. I love them for being their uniquely special, different selves.
So far, my approach has been working for us. (And since they get along 90 percent of the time, I feel like we’re ahead.) Here’s what I’ve learned over the years, in my quest to boost sibling harmony between my kids:
1. Don’t compare achievements.
Avoid saying things like, “your sister ate all her dinner, why didn’t you?” and labeling one as “the problem child,” which will surely create more problems. Instead, notice their differences without judgment. Offer up things like, “You love to use blue in your paintings,” or “ice skating sure makes you happy!”
Children, like all people, appreciate being noticed. (Try to avoid following it with a “good job,” as they don’t need the empty praise.)
2. Encourage individuality — in interests, activities, and if they want, appearance.
Allow for self-expression in their room décor, dress, and demeanor. Limit hand-me-downs as much as possible, or find fun ways to alter them. It’s so great when kids can find their “own thing” — totally different from his or her sibs. In the forthcoming children’s book I co-authored, Miles is a Mighty Brothersaurus, the middle child, Miles, feels overshadowed by his high-achieving (and attention-grabbing) siblings, and thus embarks on a journey to prove himself. Miles ultimately discovers that his extensive knowledge of dinosaurs is something worth celebrating, too!
Ultimately, we want our kids to know that what’s most important is the confidence to know that they are worthy, important, and special, no matter what they’re good at doing or the accolades their interests bring.
3. Guide and step aside.
When temperatures rise, avoid the temptation to jump in, and instead give them a chance to work out their conflict together. When it is time, you can guide them with prompts (start your sentences with, “I feel … ” or “Wait till your brother is done talking then it is your turn to talk”) and then step aside and let them navigate their own conflict resolution. It takes practice. Manage your own expectations during the process, and make sure to model what you’d like to see.
4. Make labels work.
Avoid as much as possible, saying “he’s the soccer player” or “she’s the good student” or “he’s the challenging kid” — this sets up a competitive environment and sends the message that those roles are already taken, and so they have to either compete to displace the other or find something else as their own by default. The only labels that DO work, however, are “she’s a great sister” and “he’s such a thoughtful brother” because kids internalize these positive messages and act accordingly.
5. Feed their individual “love banks.”
Try to have “Special Time” for 10-15 minutes per day with each kid so that they feel confident in your love and attention — this goes a long way in circumventing the negative attention seekers. “Special Time” is one-on-one time, guided by activities they choose, and you follow. No other guidance on your or the other sibs’ part. No screens, no distractions, make a big point of making sure your kid knows you are 100 percent devoted to them — but set a timer so there is a formal stop time. And then, during that Special Time, be sure to notice and invest in their interests and different personalities.
Considering that jealousy, resentment, and competition between siblings makes everyone in the family miserable and can lead to life-long strife among family members, it is crucial to establish and support your children as siblings. And to love them differently, as individuals.
Once you do, thankfully nothing will be the same again.