Sweet sibling harmony. Fair, not equal, parenting means adjusting your approach to suit the child.

How to Treat Siblings Equally

by Karen Friesen

“That’s not fair!” It is the universal wail of siblings (ranking up there with “I didn’t do it” and “It’s not my fault”). In the day-to-day drama of family life, it seems somebody always feels slighted. While you want to ensure that kids get equal treatment, as it turns out, that's not actually the goal: Instead, aim to treat your kids fairly. With some rock-star effort on your part, even the kids will recognize the benefits.

Rejoice in their differences, say child development experts from the University of Michigan. The 10-year-old science aficionado and the 7-year-old soccer star may sleep under the same roof, but otherwise exist on different planets. Your outward appreciation of each kid's interests and strengths helps validate their unique gifts. Say, “I’m really proud of the way you always help set the table,” for instance, or "Great work on that book report. I appreciate what a hard worker you are." You'll end up building your bond along with your kids' self-esteem: double bonus points!

Spend one-on-one time with each child. Keep it even and consistent by setting aside a few hours every couple of weeks and doing something together - alone. Engage yourself in something that interests them. This might mean investing an hour playiing video games or building a super-duper cardboard spaceship. The point is, your kids can look forward to their own time where they receive your undivided attention.

Acknowledge when one child is requiring more time and attention than usual. Explain to the others that, right now, Joey is having a challenging time in school and needs extra help. And yes, some children simply demand more parental time than others -- always. Carve out 10 minutes (or whatever you can spare) from each day, no matter what, to catch up and talk with the others. It shows you are accessible, regardless of whatever craziness is going on in your life, and helps you keep up with what’s going on in theirs.

Streamline your parenting strategy to suit the child. You may have already experienced the “eureka!” moment when you discovered that tactics that work magically for one of your kids have zero impact on another. Limiting screen time for a daughter who’d rather have her nose in a book, for instance, is pointless. Age matters too, says parenting expert Rene Hackney, PhD. You wouldn't discipline a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old the same way, even if they misbehave in the same way. The goal is to raise kids who are respectful, solid members of the community, and the same road map just won’t work for every child.

Avoid comparing. Nothing builds resentment among siblings faster than a hastily blurted “Why can’t you just cooperate like your sister?” Instead, pinpoint what your kids are good at, and compliment them for their efforts.


  • It’s a good bet your instincts are spot on when it comes to identifying your kids' individual needs. Attending to those sends the message that you care for each of them equally, but what they need from you -- and from life -- is different. The result is some family harmony and tight sibling relationships that will last a lifetime. Now that’s more than fair.

About the Author

Living near Portland, Ore., Karen Friesen has been a writer for more than 20 years, specializing in parenting, travel and cooking. She has contributed articles to "The Oregonian," "Portland Parent magazine" and her hometown newspaper, as well as nonprofit organizations and small businesses. Friesen holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Portland.

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