EVER WORRY THAT YOU PARENT YOUR CHILDREN DIFFERENTLY?
Is Your Parenting Style A Problem, Or Are Your Children Simply Different? What Caused This Difference And Do You Need To Do Anything About It?
How is it that my two sons are so different from each other? They grew up in the same household, roughly three years apart, and nothing changed. No divorce, no move, no major financial or career changes. We know that children growing up within the same family can have unique personalities (see “Why Are Siblings So Different?” By Dunn and Plomin, 1991), and the temperaments of children have been found to elicit different parenting. Naturally it begs the old nature vs. nurture question.
In his book The Gene, Siddartha Mukherjee delves deeply into what traits are genetically determined and therefore heritable and how this may be the effect of multiple genes. In measuring the heritability of IQ, he states that “whatever the IQ test was measuring, it was a heritable factor, but one also influenced by many genes and possibly strongly modified by environment – part nature and part nurture.” Somehow this is comforting – it takes the ownness off parenting alone and allows for a flexible understanding of the uniqueness of each child’s personality.
Birth order matters of course, in how we parent our children. Much has been written about classic personalities of firstborn and second and third children, some of which may apply to your family dynamics, some not as much. For example, firstborn are characterized as generally driven, have perfectionist tendencies and seek approval from authority figures. Second born are said to be flexible, easygoing and social. Regardless of specific personality traits associated with birth order, we often have more available time for the first born. By the time the second (or third) comes along it’s a juggling act of attending to everyone’s constant and varying needs. When my first son was born, I took off a year, but by the time I had my second I could only afford to take off four and a half months. I remember parking my second infant son in order to get something, anything, done. I felt guilty I wasn’t spending more waking moments with him, but there was always too much to do. We’ll never be able to assess whether spending more time with a young child is more valuable for their development than letting them find their own way early. Even if we could, any rule couldn’t be applied universally, as the uniqueness of each child and their family dynamic would have to be factored into the equation.
How Have I Contributed
How much have I contributed as a parent to the ways in which they are different? Was I following their lead or was I shaping their behavior? To be clear, I’m not talking about parental differential treatment, which has been linked to negative child and adolescent outcomes. In those cases, a parent clearly prefers one child over the other, which was definitely not true in my household. As in many families, the differences between my sons’ needs were striking. My second son needed to be picked and carried around most of the time, whereas my first son wanted to get out of my arms to explore. Did I perpetuate these behaviors by picking them up or putting them down, or would each child act in their own way regardless of what I did? I knew, even then, that not all was related to me; they clearly had their own agendas. When it came time to child-proof my house in light of their mobility and age-appropriate exploration, I expected that once I’d done it for my older son, I would repeat it for my younger son. But no, he was interested in electrical outlets, not climbing to reach forbidden objects. It meant starting all over to anticipate new dangers. When they became teenagers, my older son wanted to be out with friends as much as possible, and my younger son got himself an internship at an auto shop. Very different paths. It has been easy to be judgmental about their choices throughout their lives because we want them to be perfectly balanced in all things. But they are not, and while I may have wished my older son would exhibit greater empathy regarding my younger son, I also wished my younger son would mimic the way his brother had little anxiety about trying new things. The takeaway is to let them be themselves and not compare them to their siblings.
My mother tried hard to have everything be equal for my sister and me. We are two years apart, and she wanted to ensure we felt like we were treated the same. Even as adults she bought us gifts of similar value, spent the same amount of time with each of us when visiting, and thought neither of us should ever feel slighted. My sister and I needed her to be fair to minimize competition and to reinforce we both felt loved by her, so she was right in that regard. I appreciated her intent, though I thought she went overboard when we were adults. We could recognize and handle when one of us needed a little extra something without feeling that it was coming out of our own pockets.
The type of relationship you have with your adult children is an extension of how you related to them when they were young. You sense what they need emotionally, and tailor your conversations to fit their personalities. Each of our children channel different aspects of our own personalities, so we tend to relate to them based on what we have in common. The nature of my relationship with each son, now that they are adults, clearly aligns to aspects of my own personality. I see myself in both of them. As a mother, I seek a level of comfort and familiarity in how we relate to each other. With my older son we are more likely to discuss intellectual pursuits, and my younger son and I enjoy an unconditional ease about daily life. I’m in more frequent contact with my younger son, because he needs the emotional connection (and as it turns out, so do I). There are times I achingly miss my older son, thinking back to when he needed me growing up and also thinking about how much I enjoy him as an adult. If it was up to me, we’d talk more often, but I’m respectful of his busy life. When our children are young, we can’t wait for them to become more independent, and when they are all grown up, we miss how much they needed us. I guess that’s human nature – you always want what you can’t have!
It’s important to monitor how you behave with each child to ensure you are being reasonably fair and don’t create resentments. That said, it’s also essential that you accept that you relate to each child based on who they are and what they need from you. Give yourself permission to be yourself with each of them. You don’t have to treat them in a cookie cutter way because they are not cookies (even though we sometimes wish they were so we could eat up their cuteness!).