Should Parents Love Their Children The Same Way?

What does it mean to love other people equally? Indeed, how do we as parents love our own children fairly? Do we treat each child exactly the same and measure out our affection carefully so as to avoid favouritism? How do we acknowledge our children’s unique identities while meeting their need to belong? In his role as a family therapist, and as a father of two sons himself, Owen has valuable insight on this important issue that he has shared in his book for fathers. Today’s blog post in our “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” series looks at his answer to this question. We hope that you will find his advice invaluable in your own parenting.

IS IT IMPORTANT THAT WE LOVE EACH CHILD THE SAME WAY?

I believe that every child is uniquely different, and therefore each have to be met where they are and in accordance with their own unique needs/personality. Saying “I love all the children the same,” is an unhelpful statement to make and a lie. By loving each child differently in a way that suits them specifically, you are giving them an identity and valuing them for who they are. Always remember that you are the one in the best position to know your child well, and you MUST take the time to get to know them. I can’t emphasise that enough. You should be looking at their talents, their abilities, their qualities, their personalities. This will help you parent them in the way that’s best suited to their needs.

Not only is every child of yours unique, they each have a different mother and father, because a child’s reaction to the same parent will always be different than its sibling’s. And each child will try to find its own space within the family. Our primitive instincts will mean that our position in the family will determine how we react to the other members of our family, and the roles we instinctively take on are not always good for us or for the others. Parents must intervene and make sure we don’t fall into roles that could cause damage within relationships. Investment from parents, assuring the children that they are all unique and special, will avert many of the problems associated with position in family. We must keep our children from attacking one another by explaining that all children instinctually behave in a defensive, primitive way towards one another because of ancient survival mechanisms. These mechanisms date back to a time when siblings might have had to kill each other in the competition for limited food resources! (Reassure your children that you are available to each of them, that the fridge is full, and that there is enough food for all!)

Ordinarily in families, the first boy will gravitate towards mum if that’s allowed and it’s important for him to do so. And if the first child is a girl, she’ll gravitate towards dad. Problems can arise when child number two comes along. If child number two is the same sex as its older sibling, it’s a competing situation. If it’s a boy, the second boy may not have the same access to the mother, especially if they’re close in age. He’ll see himself as excluded from the family circle on some level. If it’s a second girl, the first girl will usually be dominant, so the second girl will gravitate towards the mother and becomes “mammy’s little helper” – pleasing and helping mammy. When the third child comes along, he or she will often attempt to be a peacemaker between the first two siblings. Families build themselves in groups of three – first, middle and last child followed by first, middle and last child and so on. The first and fourth children will behave similarly and often get along well, the second and fifth children will be independent/observers (which can be good or bad) and the third and sixth will be the peacemakers. Of course, there are exceptions to these patterns based on the character of the individuals involved. For example, if the first girl is especially sensitive and shy, she may be the “mammy’s helper” because she’s more cautious in her approach to daddy, especially if he’s “scary” – raises his voice, etc. – in any way. And the second, more outgoing girl in that case would gravitate towards dad.

As a family therapist, it has been my observation that where you’re placed in the family may have implications as to what intimacy needs are met or unmet. For example, if you are the eldest, your need for affection might be omitted but you’re given responsibility which means that your need for respect will be well met. As a result, you may specifically seek out affection in your relationships in the future and become upset if your need for affection is dismissed. If you happen to be the second child in a three child family, depending on the spacing of the children and the gender, you might find yourself feeling that you are not being given enough attention. Therefore, because you feel ignored, you may decide that you are not what your parents want. This can lead to the child becoming independent and self-reliant. The third child in a three children family will often be the child who expresses the most neediness, leading to them being treated as “the baby.” Another common pattern is that it appears that first children often get all the responsibility and none of the freedom, third children get all the freedom and none of the responsibility and second children feel like they have to do it all by themselves.

Huge difficulties can arise from these natural roles that children take on so it’s very important for parents to intervene and smooth things over between siblings. If we intervene, then, in the long run, the whole family will get along in a much happier, more peaceful way.

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