We can fill books with the stories: “Mom bought you that bike after you left it out and it rusted, and I couldn’t even get new FLIP-FLOPS when the dog ate them!” or “It was always all about you and your travelling soccer team! Dad never even CAME to my art shows, but he cheered you on EVERY weekend.” And the stories get worse as adults, don’t they? Stories of siblings being left out of wills, stories of jealousy so rank that entire families are torn apart. Unwanted behaviors become wild antics to garner attention, and those are the adults at Christmastime!
Favoritism and its wide wake is a story as old as time. Cain and Abel, those brothers felt God (the DAD) was favoring one of them. King Lear? Asking the daughters to describe their love for good ‘ol Dad. And Frasier and Niles Crane in Frasier gave their best lines while fighting about affection, per their father. And The Brady Bunch is famous for its sibling spats, and book after book after book has been written about politics, families, and sibling in-fighting (the Kennedy Family and Bush Clan come to mind).
In Janice D’Arcy’s recent article, she discusses a new book about siblings, rivalry, and what those bonds reveal. In the book, the author shows us the science of how parents, often unknowingly, favor one sibling over another. The author goes on to say that little can be done about this; it is a stew of complexity that cannot be overcome.
Well, as a parent coach, I want to have a crack at this.
We are not going to undo genetics nor unweave the complexities of the unconscious. Yet, I do believe that simply understanding temperament (traits your child are born with and keep his entire life) and its implications can help parents become aware, hence helping to change their own outlook on the child. Sounds hard? Yes and no.
Understanding temperament is not that difficult. It is a list of traits that researchers believe you are born with; it is not environmental (at least outside of the uterus), it is not dependant on parental love, your birth experience, whether someone holds you enough, etc. It is your essence, your outlook, your je ne sais quoi.
Parent favoritism exists, oftentimes, because a parent “meshes” better or more with one of the children; and/or the parent seems to really “not get along” with one of their children: undiagnosed temperament differences!
While biology is the driving force in your temperament, though, how it plays out in your family is crucially important. Let me give you an example:
My first daughter (S) was (and is) a friendly, sometimes anxious, easy-going child. And as a baby, she seemed “normal” and was not difficult to soothe, sleep, comfort, etc. As she grew into toddlerhood, I noticed more and more that she stood back and watched the other children at the park. She watched them play, slide, dig, run, and swing. After a while, and with a lot of coaxing, she would join in. Sometimes she would return to me after a couple of minutes (much to my complete annoyance), and sometimes she would meet one little girl, “a friend,” with whom she could run. As S grew, she had many friends, but same as the playground, she did not easily slip into the school environment. She watched and waited, waited and watched.
This drove me nuts. I can walk into a room and talk to anyone about anything. I can talk about any topic (even if I know nothing about it), I love to listen to people, and make others laugh. I have always been this way. Doesn’t mean I always do this, mind you, but I can. It is easy. So I struggled mightily with this shy behavior. Was I doing something wrong? Was I not socializing her enough? Was she developing normally? I was so annoyed by it…was I bad mother?
It took a while, but after some help and some reading, I realized S and I had very difference temperaments. The temperament trait of “Approach/Withdrawal”, “the child’s usual response to new people or situations—whether the child is eager for new experiences or shy and hesitant,” was a crucial piece of temperament for me to understand. I was quick to approach; she was slow to approach. Suddenly, like the sun parting through clouds, all was clear. There was nothing “wrong” with S or me; we were simply different in temperament.
Armed with my information, I allowed my daughter to be who she was (and is) and well, left her alone. I quietly encouraged and stood by, but I largely got out of the way and S made friends and played her way, which is the only way she was going to play anyway. I was no longer racked with guilt or fear, and I no longer disrespectfully forced her into situations prematurely. Imagine the relief and release felt in our relationship; it was revelatory.
So, what if you are not meshing with your child? Chances are pretty good you may be lacking a “goodness of fit,” vis-à-vis temperament. Here are some tips for what to do:
- Get one book about temperament (with tests in it) and one book about normal child development. Figure out if your child is in a development change and you are simply challenged by that (babies throwing food on floor), or if you and your child are struggling because you have some fundamental differences (child does not respond to your sunny optimism with equal enthusiasm).
- Test yourself, partner, care givers and ALL of your children using the temperament scales.
- Understand that ALL temperament traits are neither good nor bad, they simply are. Your child’s activity level (one of the traits) can be through the roof and irritating now, but it will in handy when he captain of the soccer team in high school and then later, the coach of Little League as a father.
- Stop personalizing the struggle! Your child is not out to get you, annoy you, or challenge you. At the same time, she is not social and friendly to impress you. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
- Give the child what he or she needs. Child lower on the energy scale? Miserable in gymnastics? Go ahead and try the quieter art classes. Child is higher on the distractible scale? Find games with a faster pace and quicker outcome (Hot Potato, Spot-It).
- Know that the temperament difference is forever, but new behaviors can be cultivated and helped along with training, role modeling, and lots of patience.
- Simply recognizing a temperament mismatch can help alleviate negative feelings, help the parent address misbehaviors with positivity and hope, and can help negate many the effects of favoritism.
- Whatever you do, LOVE LOVE LOVE your child for who there are, today, right now. Accepting reality, and our differences, is the ultimate balm for this potential sore. When in doubt, LOVE!