Children in the same
family can be strikingly different. Parents may believe they’re
raising their children in similar ways, yet the children have very
different personalities, abilities, and interests. Why?
Naturally, heredity plays a major role in determining temperament
and abilities. One child in a family may be easygoing by nature,
another more sensitive. One may have athletic ability, while another
is intellectually inclined.
Gender affects personality differences as well. Boys and girls
frequently have different interests and activity levels although
each may become strongly involved in activities stereotypically
associated with the opposite sex. In addition, kids often imitate
what they see, and if parents have very different interests and
personalities, one child may imitate her mother while the other
follows her father.
The way parents treat their children has a major impact on the
development of personality, interests, and abilities. Parents shape
and steer their child in many ways, both consciously and
unconsciously. They may encourage musical talent while ignoring
mechanical ability; they may inadvertently stifle creativity or
individuality while urging their child to “be good.” They may offer
her nurturing role models or help her become a leader.
Within a family, each child’s experience is unique. For instance, a
first born receives a lot of attention during her years as the only
child. However, because her parents are inexperienced, they may be
cautious, demanding, and nervous at the same time that they’re
loving and proud. Parents are usually more relaxed and lenient with
their younger children.
There are other circumstances that lead parents to treat their
children differently, often with negative results. One child may
have a temperamental characteristic that unhappily reminds her
parents of something in themselves or another relative. Parents
don’t like seeing familiar negative characteristics reflected in
their child and may wish—or pressure—her to be different.
The resemblance can be something specific. A parent with a strong
temper may single out a child with a similar personality: “Your loud
mouth will get you in trouble.” The parent who has negative feelings
about himself may treat the child who is like him more harshly than
he treats his other children.
The resemblance also can be general. A child might simply be a
reminder to her parents that they (and she) are not as aggressive,
talented, or intelligent as they would like to be. One parent,
talking to his spouse about their child, said, “She’s stubborn, just
If one child physically resembles a parent or other relative in a
way that makes parents uncomfortable, they may voice their
“Your hair is so thin, just like my sister’s.” “You have ears like
your mother.” “You’re chunky like me.” More often parents don’t
mention their feelings aloud, yet still may be bothered by aspects
of their child’s appearance.
The child who is the unfortunate target of such comments will feel
unhappy and singled out among her siblings. If she hears these
messages often enough, she’ll internalize them: “I’m not smart.”
“I’m not pretty.” “I’m not good at sports.” She may behave as though
what she’s heard is true. Her siblings, who have escaped their
parents’ criticism, will not have such negative self-images.
Siblings also may develop strong differences if one seems to be
favored by her parents. For example, if parents believe one child is
prettier than/the other and express that belief to both, one will
grow up feeling worthwhile while the other will feel less valued and
Sometimes parents focus too much attention, time, or money on one
child; this can have a negative impact on the other children in the
family. If a child sees her brother receive attention and praise for
his athletic ability, she will look for a way to get attention for
herself. She may try to compete with him, but that’s unlikely if she
feels she can’t match him. Rather than risk having her parents
compare her performance to his, she may give up on sports
Instead, she’ll try to find another way to distinguish herself. She
may try art or dancing or develop a charming or funny manner.
However, if she can’t get enough positive attention from her
parents, she might seek negative attention, perhaps developing a
behavioral problem at home and school. The unhappier she becomes,
the more likely she is to become careless with her schoolwork,
family, and peers, and the less likely she’ll be to get positive
feedback from her parents. Her experience will be very different
from her sibling’s.
Parents sometimes deliberately steer their kids in different
directions, often to avoid possible conflicts and competition. If an
older child enrolls in dance class, her parents may discourage her
younger sibling from doing the same for fear one will outshine the
other. Some parents were raised in competitive households and want
to spare their children the experience of failing to match a
sibling. However, when parents keep one child from pursuing her
interest; they rob her of a chance for enjoyment and accomplishment.
Siblings can successfully participate in the same activities as long
as their parents don’t focus on competition between them or praise
one and not the other. Even if one is better, there will always be
something good to say about each. Both should be encouraged.
Although it’s intriguing and important to consider the differences
between your children, it’s also important to deal with the
differences carefully. Accept each as she is, nurture her, and
encourage her to pursue activities that she enjoys and is good at.
Don’t push and pull her in directions she can’t or doesn’t want to
go. Remember not to compare your children out loud. They’ll hear
your comparisons as judgments, and one will end up feeling superior
or inferior to the other.
It’s natural to feel disappointed in your children at times: “He’s
not the ball player I’d hoped he’d be.” “I wish she’d been a boy.”
“I wish she were more sociable.” Try to accept what disappoints you.
It’s emotionally unhealthy for your children to hear your negative
evaluations. They’ll wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why couldn’t I
be like my sister?”
The best way to treat differences is matter-of-factly and with
respect: “Sam enjoys reading.” “Julie likes gymnastics.” Your kids
will be affected throughout their lives by the way you view them. If
you set the right tone, they’ll follow your lead and learn to
appreciate and accept differences as a natural part of life. As a
result, they’ll grow up feeling good about their siblings and