All of us harbor some fantasies about the ways our children will turn out. But they don't come into this world to fulfill a script we've already chosen for them. Fostering a unique sense of self in each of our children involves what I call learning to honor the person in every child -- that is, celebrating each one's special traits, quirks, and talents.
When I lived in Hawaii, I learned to apply the gracious concept of aloha -- which to me means to welcome the stranger and seek the good in him -- to family relationships. Each newborn is indeed a stranger to his family, a little mystery seed who'll blossom into his destiny. Our job as parents is to embrace him and give him the freedom to fulfill his potential.
Since all parents want the best for their kids, achieving this may sound relatively easy. But to convey the message that each of your children is cherished and irreplaceable means navigating between the desire of each one to be loved more than his siblings and a parent's wish to be fair and love his or her children equally.
Most kids assume that the attention showered on a new baby in the family means less parental love for them. So if your child can't have all your affection, he'll try to find out if you love him "the most." One 6-year-old with a new baby brother would bait his mother by saying sweetly: "You're my very best mommy in the whole world. Am I your best little boy?"
Try to resist the temptation to hint privately that you prefer one child over another. No matter how much kids long to hear it, the truth is that feeling they're loved the most isn't very reassuring; after all, at some point first place could go to the brother or sister who behaves better or gets a higher grade in school. Parental love suddenly begins to feel tenuous and conditional, rather than permanent and unqualified.
While children may worry about who is loved the most, parents often find themselves focusing their energies on giving each child the same amount of time and attention. But your elaborate efforts to love your kids equally will never feel truly fair to them. Your son is likely to count the number of sprinkles on his cupcake just to prove his sister got more than he did (and thus, in his mind, more love).
Instead of trying to love each of your children the same, concentrate on cultivating a separate, distinct bond with each child. Your children want the assurance that you have reserved a special place in your heart for each of them and that no other boy or girl can ever replace them. Knowing that she is loved unconditionally for who she is can go a long way in compensating a child for having to share her parents' love and attention with her siblings.
Learning how to love unconditionally is challenging, but it's also one of the most precious gifts we can give our children. The following strategies can help you form that individual, irreplaceable bond with each child.
The best way to develop individual relationships with your children is to spend time alone with each one on a regular basis. Among other things, it helps cut down on your natural tendency to compare or typecast your kids. For example, your youngest is more likely to be viewed as "the baby" when the whole family is together than when he's just going out with you.
But you needn't plan a special outing to spend time alone with each child. When the opportunity arises -- say, when your toddler is napping -- you can play a game or do a puzzle with her older brother, talk to him about his day, or prepare a meal together. You can also invite him to work in the garden or join you when you run an errand while someone else watches the other kids.
It's inevitable: Once we've had a second child, we automatically begin searching for similarities and contrasts between the two. Harmless as they seem, comparisons almost always stir up feelings of inadequacy among kids; there's always one child who's being viewed more favorably than the other. Comparing children also conveys the message that your love and acceptance are conditional, especially when we ask questions such as "Why can't you be like your sister? She never talks back to me."
But many parents don't realize that even their compliments can pit kids against one another: "Wow, you cleaned your room! It looks much better than Marcia's now." Instead, try praising your child without referring to her siblings: "It's nice to see you playing so quietly"; "You must feel relieved to have all your homework done before your favorite TV show comes on."
Whether it's unconscious or not, many parents tend to label their children: "Our son Tim's the brainy one, while Mary's the artist"; "Harry's the easygoing one in this family." Even though your child may enjoy having a special identity within the family, typecasting limits the way he and others view him and stifles his ability to express all his emotions (how can Harry kick up a fuss when he's known as the easygoing one?)or try new experiences.
Although all of us have both positive and negative feelings about our children, occasionally a parent may project all her negative feelings onto one child, like the mother I knew who described one of her two boys as "her little angel" and the other as the "troublemaker." This good boy/bad boy distinction left the "naughty" child feeling utterly defeated and quickly created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Avoid Gender Stereotypes
Most of us want our kids to have the chance to become whatever they dream of being, but we still find ourselves ruled by gender stereotyping at times, telling our children that "nice girls don't get mad" or "big boys don't cry."
To make sure you don't shortchange either sex, give your sons and daughters a breadth of experiences and a sense of unlimited possibility. Don't assume that your little girl doesn't want to learn to mow the lawn, play drums, or take karate lessons. And don't balk if your son wants to play house, cook dinner, or learn to sew.
Another problem comes up when expectant parents have gender preferences, whether the preferences are spoken or not. If well-meaning friends and relatives make ill-timed comments, such as "Oh, maybe you'll get your little girl this time," perceptive kids soon figure out that their gender represents a major disappointment to their parents. Whatever your honest feelings about the sex of each of your children, don't reveal those feelings to them. The best thing a parent can do is to celebrate the child they have, not the child they hoped for.
Let them express themselves
One of the best ways we can help each of our kids feel appreciated is to acknowledge his intense emotions about his brother or sister without making judgments. When we trivialize a child's feelings -- "Of course you don't hate your sister. How can you say such a silly thing" -- he feels angry and misunderstood.
When your child says something about his siblings, no matter how shocking it is to you, it's better to paraphrase his feelings than to react to them: "It makes you furious when she borrows your things without asking"; "You wish babies didn't take so much time"; "Sometimes you resent having your little brother tag along." Hearing you put his feelings into words -- even if it's his fantasy about going back to being an only child again -- helps convince him that what he thinks and feels really matters to you.
Acknowledge the vulnerable child
A child may be profoundly affected by his own or a sibling's disabilities or exceptional gifts. A disabled child may feel like an intruder who interrupts everyone's routines. Or she may get so much attention that her low-maintenance, healthy sibling is left to conclude, "I'm not special."
The same thing may happen when one child is a star athlete or a musical prodigy. Her siblings may feel jealous or inadequate. Gifted kids also may feel intense pressure to perform, and they worry whether they are loved solely for their talents.
Parents of a child with special needs or special abilities have a difficult challenge, but they should try to see the child as a whole person, rather than just concentrating on her dyslexia or her record-breaking ability to run the quarter mile.
No matter how many children we have, our job should be to convince each one that she is a person of unique, infinite worth. If we succeed at this, chances are good that our kids will grow up to be happy and well-adjusted, reach their full potential, and become lifelong friends instead of bitter rivals.