Raising Kids to Be Individuals — The Importance of Treating Each Child Uniquely
In the same way that no two snowflakes are the same, neither are your children. Take a moment to think about you and your siblings, if you have them: what are your similarities and differences? I’m willing to bet that when you really think about it, your differences are much easier to pinpoint than the ways in which you’re alike.
This is normal.
While siblings often resemble one another and certainly share some traits, such as a love of Gramma’s Sunday morning waffles with whipped cream or Vikings Football (sorry, I’m from Minnesota… ), brothers and sisters can actually be quite different from one another.
Yet even so, we tend to be surprised by our children’s differences. Though my kids are being raised by the same set of parents, in the same home and with the same set of rules, I am continuously blown away by how opposite my trio is (and two of them are twins! More on that later…). They have completely different personalities, interests, strengths and more. HOW are they so different?
Back in the 1980’s, researcher Robert Plomin discovered that, even though they tend to look alike and share somewhat similar cognitive abilities, siblings aren’t much more alike than any two strangers in the world – especially when it comes to personality traits (like how extroverted or introverted you are, or whether you are easygoing or more high strung).
But Why are Siblings So Different?
According to NPR, siblings only share the same personality traits about 20 percent of the time. There are a few theories about why this is so:
- Divergence. We are hardwired NOT to directly compete with our siblings, and so we tend to unconsciously and inherently differentiate from them. For instance, one of my twins is super into dance, while the other has focused her energy on soccer. As a result, they do not have to directly fight for our praise and attention and are in fact more apt to cheer each other on at their individual pursuits. Doesn’t nature work in beautiful ways? Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way — just look at Venus and Serena…
- Non-shared environment theory differentiates between “shared” environments (like the home they live in, the parents who raise them, etc.) and “non-shared” environments (like friend groups, teachers and so on) — and proposes that the latter can have a huge influence on how we differ from our brothers and sisters. This theory also takes into account the fact that each person tends to experience the same environment in different ways. Based on this theory, though siblings may be raised by the same caregivers and in the same home (“shared environment”), their individual experiences (and interpretations of those experiences) within and outside of that environment won’t always be the same.
- Exaggeration, which essentially posits that even when there are slight differences between siblings, families (and kids themselves) tend to exaggerate these dissimilarities as a way to differentiate them. An example given by NPR states that when two children are both social, yet one may not be quite as outgoing as the other, the family may label that child as the “shy” or “introverted one.” Even though they may not be introverted at all, in comparison to their sibling(s), they seem more so, which can then lead that child to adopt this label as part of their identity for the rest of their life, whether accurate or not.
Why is it Important to Treat Our Kids Like Individuals?
Sure, our love for each of our children may be equal, but that doesn’t mean we should interact with and treat them in the same way. Even if your kids are alike, they are still different people, and it’s crucial to treat them like the individuals they are — to honor and value each of them and the unique contributions they make to the family and to the world around them.
When we treat our children like individuals, we show them that we honor and appreciate them for who they are; in turn, this helps boost their sense of identity, confidence, pride and self-assurance.
On the contrary, when we compare our kids to one another (“Joey is so well-behaved, why can’t you be more like him?” Or, “Try to swing the racquet just like Sara — her swing is perfect!”) or treat them like carbon copies of each other, we ultimately contribute to eroding their sense of identity and self-worth. Furthermore, comparing siblings can pit them against each other and create unhealthy and detrimental competitiveness between them. Remember, parents, that at the end of the day, each child is always competing for your time, attention, praise and love — comparing them only amplifies the rivalry.
Finally, our children (like all humans) each have different needs, and we must tailor our parenting style to meet them. For instance, one of my children needs big, tight squeezes to feel safe during a tantrum, while another one needs her space to breathe and calm down. Likewise, one of my kids appreciates when I clap and cheer for her during soccer games, while the other one feels embarrassed and prefers I praise her privately after the game. One kiddo likes when I talk calmly and softly to her, while the other only listens if I speak loudly and with lots of animated hand gestures (crazy, but true!).
Also, keep in mind that “different needs” encompasses everything from support and love to discipline, food, sleep, and setting boundaries. How many of us have one kiddo who is a total stickler for the rules and another who literally steps over lines on purpose?
Tips for Treating Your Kids Like Individuals
- Don’t compare them. “Amy got ready for school so much faster than you today; why can’t you be as focused as your sister?” Comments like these feel belittling to children and can make them feel insecure and like you love one more than the other. Ouch.
- Praise them. Make sure you are praising each of your children for their own unique talents, skills and abilities. This goes a long way in helping to build their confidence, sense of self and purpose. By doing so, you also show them that you value them for who they are.
- Family fun! Get silly with each other! Here are some ideas: family movie night (popcorn and blanket forts make it even more fun!), a game of flag football, Sunday morning brunch, game night, cooking a meal together, etc. Simply having a good time together relieves stress, releases feel-good endorphins, and helps promote sibling and parental bonding. Let your kids take turns choosing the family fun activity. It gives each kiddo the opportunity to pick an activity that suits their personality best — and the entire family honors that and participates.
- Respect each child’s unique needs. According to the Middlesex Health, “Treating your children uniformly isn’t always practical. For example, instead of buying your children the same gifts to avoid conflict, consider buying them different gifts that reflect their individual interests. Instead of signing up all of your children for soccer or piano lessons, ask for their input.” As challenging as it can be, take the time to get to know each of your children individually, and figure out what makes them tick. Then, treat, respond to, and parent your child accordingly.
- Respect and honor their differences. Let each kid be who they are. One of my girls loves to wear frilly dresses and fancy shoes, while the other two prefer pants and sneakers. One wants to do gymnastics all day long, another prefers to kick the soccer ball around, while still another could sit and color quietly for hours. I try not to comment on it and just let them be their unique, individual selves – to celebrate their differences.
- Remind each child what makes them special. Whether you add this to your bedtime routine or start the day talking about it with each of your children, telling your kids what you love about each of them — and having them tell you what they love about themselves — is a great way to remind them that you value them, as well as encourage them to be proud of and honor who they are.
- Spend time alone with each child. In our house, each child gets a special “date” with me and/or my husband where they get to choose the activity and get 1:1 uninterrupted time to do whatever they enjoy most (we aim to do this every month, or every couple of months, as our family’s schedule allows). This way, each kiddo feels loved and special, gets to participate with us in the activity of their choosing, and doesn’t feel like they constantly have to compete with their siblings for our undivided time and attention.
It can be extremely difficult to help twins or multiples develop their own sense of self and identity. Twins — especially pairs who are identical — are often thought of as one “unit” and referred to as “The Twins” (especially when people can’t tell them apart). This is so harmful to their sense of identity, self-esteem, self-worth, and individual development. Twins, like all siblings, need to have the opportunity to develop their own sense of self, separate from their womb-mates.
This article in Psychology Today is chock full of helpful tips on treating twins like individuals. In addition, as a mom to a set of 5-year-old fraternal twins (at time of publish), here are some helpful things I’ve learned along the way:
- On their birthdays, they each get their own cake (advice given to me by a dear friend who is an identical twin herself).
- Remind friends and family often of their unique differences, personality traits, passions and skill sets.
- Let them choose their own clothes — if they want to dress alike, great; but don’t force them to wear matching outfits.
- If you have the space, consider giving them their own rooms… then, as they get older, let them decorate their rooms in a way that matches their individual style and personalities.
- Allow them to participate in the activities they enjoy most — don’t force them to do the same things simply because it’s easier (and believe me — it IS easier!).
- When it comes to toys, don’t feel like you need to buy them the exact same things — steer your gift choices toward their individual interests and personalities.
- When it comes time, consider separating them in school if that works best for your duo and your family.
- Don’t compare them. Ever.
- Praise and celebrate what makes each of them special!
Parenting is certainly no easy feat, but one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, when you have multiple children, is to figure out how to treat brothers and sisters individually and meet their unique needs.
But therein also lies the beauty of being a parent: we, as caregivers, have the incredible opportunity to help foster within our kids a strong sense of self and confidence. From the time they are babies, we are granted the colossal honor (and responsibility) of helping them discover what makes them so special and one-of-a-kind. And that’s amazing.
We’d love to hear from you. What are some of the biggest differences between your children, and how do you tailor your parenting style to meet their needs? Please share your stories with us in the comments below.
Wonderful article, Marissa. I agree wholeheartedly that twins should be separated in school if possible. We separated our girls starting in Kindergarten, it was one of the best things we ever did for them. As a teacher, I see some sets of twins who stay together for all of elementary school. They don’t get a chance to form separate identities and friendships.
[…] Then one day I pitched an idea to my editor at Lucie’s List. It started out as an idea to write about the importance of treating twins/multiples as individuals. So often people lump twins together — even referring to them as “The Twins” as opposed to their individual names — which makes it hard for them to differentiate themselves and build their own identities. But then we decided this concept applies to ALL siblings — not just twins. And thus, my article on the importance of treating each of your kinds uniquely was born. […]
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