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Reality Check: Being Fair to Your Children

Q  I know I tend to be too hard on my firstborn (he's only 5), and to baby my youngest, who's 3. How can I break this unfair pattern?
A You can adjust your expectations to be more appropriate to your children's ages, but you can't change their birth order, which some people believe has a profound effect on each of our experiences of family life. A friend told me that the day she came home with baby number two, she looked at her 3-year-old and thought, "Shouldn't you be getting a job or something?"

"When a chore has to be done," says Kevin Leman, Ph.D, author of The New Birth Order Book, "who do we call on? The firstborn." Leman, a father of five, ages 7 to 27, advises the following for raising first- and lastborn children without favoring either. (His advice for raising middle children? Give them some special time alone with you every week so they don't feel overlooked sandwiched between "the Crown Prince" and "Little Snookie.")

Don't "should" your firstborn. It's hard not to have high expectations for your eldest, but preaching the gospel of "should this" and "shouldn't that" conveys to a child that he's not good enough. Lighten up a little, and remember he's still a kid, even if he's the oldest kid in the house.

Make sure the "baby" pitches in. It may be faster and more efficient to set the table yourself, for instance, or to have an older child do it, but in the long run, teaching all family members to help out is an investment of time that will pay off. The catch, says Leman, is that the parents have to slow down long enough to teach their youngest how to do things around the house. Pick simple tasks that you know he can accomplish; don't just give him a free ride.

Respect your elder child. With increased responsibility should come privileges: "Don't send an older and a younger child off to bed at the same time," says Leman. "It's more expedient, but it's not fair." Even if you let your 5-year-old stay up just 15 minutes later than his 3-year-old brother, it shows him that respect. The privilege will be meaningful to him, and will give his little brother something to look forward to. Growing up does have its perks.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.

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