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Reality Check: Not All Children are Born Equal

Q  My 5-year-old son is easygoing, and we seem to just naturally understand each other. But my 18-month-old daughter already pushes all my buttons. How can I treat them equally?
A While it doesn't seem fair, chemistry between two people is a fact of life, even for parents and their children. It seems only logical that one's own spawn should come out wired to live peacefully with its host parents, since neither party can choose its relations. But it doesn't work like that, and just as you may have office mates who rub you the wrong way, sometimes you have to be the parent of someone who pushes all your buttons.

I feel guilty about this on a daily basis. While Madeline, 6, is often the salt in my wound, Eleanor, 3, is usually the salve. I worry that despite my attempts to be fair and equal toward my girls, I'm not and I can't be. There are just more opportunities for personality clashes with Madeline than there are with Ellie, and there are more opportunities for pleasant encounters with Ellie than there are with Madeline. But what worries me most is that I think they know it.

My friend Donna grew up with nine siblings, so I called her mother, Dorothy Ricciardi, for advice. I figured that any mother who successfully raised ten kids had a few secrets. Mrs. Ricciardi estimates that a good 60 to 70 percent of her offspring have personalities that aren't naturally compatible with hers. "You try to treat them the same, but it just doesn't work out that way. You can be fair and treat them equally overall, but you can't treat them the same, because they're not the same." In the Ricciardi household, fair and equal but not the same meant that one night Louise, the picky eater, might get ravioli for dinner instead of macaroni like everyone else. But the next week, Donna would get tap-dancing lessons and Christopher would get to go to the movies. Treating the kids as the individuals they were, for good and for bad, was Mrs. Ricciardi's secret. "Sometimes you give more to one than the other because he or she needs it," she says.

Lately, to feel more balanced and less guilty about my stormy/calm relationships with my daughters, I'm making an effort to notice what, in the era of 45 rpm records, would have been called the girls' B sides. I'm trying to gently point out in front of both of my children some under-recognized strengths of Madeline's personality (honesty, directness, bravery) and some equally under-recognized weaknesses of Ellie's (a bit of manipulativeness and guile, maybe too much people-pleasingness). Not surprisingly, Madeline enjoys this. But Ellie seems fine with it too. Nobody likes to be pigeonholed, even the designated "good" child. The message the girls get is that they're complex people, and Mommy and Daddy see them and love them, roses, thorns, and all.

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