When I was younger, I was always frustrated when my parents didn’t treat their children exactly the same. I thought it was unfair when they would do something to help one of my brothers, but I also thought it was unfair when they would do something to help me individually.
Why couldn’t they just treat all of us equally?
Now that I’ve grown and matured and have children of my own, I see how difficult it is to treat all of your children exactly the same. You can get fairly close, of course, but it’s impossible to do it perfectly.
The problem, of course, is that any time you help one child in a special way and the others notice, it has a strong potential to foster negative feelings.
I’ve witnessed it on some level with almost every set of siblings I know. I’ve seen it with my own siblings. I’ve seen it with my wife and her siblings. I’ve seen it with both of my parents and their siblings, along with my grandmother and her siblings.
Naturally, some families handle this better than others. I’ve seen some families where it’s completely normal. I’ve seen other families where it’s completely disastrous.
Recently, though, I’ve had a handful of experiences with both sides of this equation which has offered some incredible insight as to why some families handle this inequality well and why some families do not. Here are three tactics that will help you navigate this minefield, too.
Use Standards for Special Rewards
If you’re going to give something unequally to your children before they’ve left home, make sure that the reasons and standards for doing so are clear.
Some families, for example, reward good grades with gifts. The best way to do this is to have a standard that you stick with for all of your children. You should set a clear standard of a certain reward for an “A,” a smaller reward for a “B,” and so on.
If you reward exceptional optional behavior, make it clear that such rewards are open to all of the children who step up to the task. Remember, you’re rewarding the behavior, not the child.
Open the Discussion
If you’re in a situation where one adult child needs more help than another child, the best approach isn’t to quietly help that child. The best approach is to sit down with the other adult child (or children) for a chat.
Both the parents and the children need to be very open about the problem that needs to be solved – the other child. It should never be framed as a matter of how the parents can help one child over another child. It should always be a matter of what the rest of the family can do to help out the family member who is in trouble.
Everyone should be involved in that solution. Even if it involves the parents providing some financial support, the fact that the children are involved and offering other kinds of support and are also involved in the discussion goes a long way toward soothing potential conflicts.
Don’t Leave a Bomb
If you’re going to distribute money or items unequally in a will or other estate plan, don’t do it “secretly.” Make sure that those receiving the items know what they’re getting – and know what others are getting as well. That way, they aren’t left venting their frustrations at their siblings. If you’re going to do things in an unequal fashion, have the courage to face those who might be expecting otherwise.
My advice, though, is to not do it unequally unless you have an extremely powerful reason for doing so. If you care about long-term relationships among your children, the best thing you can do is give away a few personal items, then have everything else sold at an estate auction in which the proceeds are split among all interested parties.
These three steps, spread throughout the relationship between parents and children, can go a long way toward preventing sibling mistrust and rivalry and help to ensure healthy relationships between all involved parties.