… doesn’t work.  It just doesn’t satisfy. 

I’m reading a book called Siblings without Rivalry.  The chapter dealing with fairness between brothers and sisters is entitled “Fair is Less”.  In it parents discuss with the two authors how it never seems to work when you tell children that you love them both or all the same.  That is because children do not want everything to be the same, but want to be loved differently for who they are:

“It was a difficult concept to explain.  I told them all the story of the young wife who suddenly turned on her husband and asked, “Who do you love more?  Your mother or me?”  Had he answered, “I love you both the same,” he would have been in big trouble.  But instead he said, “My mother is my mother.  You’re the fascinating, sexy woman that I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

   “To be loved equally,” I continued, “is somehow to be loved less.  To be loved uniquely – for one’s own special self – is to be loved as much as we need to be loved.”

Had I been the young wife, the husband’s comments would have hit the spot.  I’ll try to make sure I give the same individual attention to my daughters.  I think it works with friends too.  Friends want to know they are loved for who they are.  It is true of spouses, siblings and friends: if you are loved for who you are, then you do not have to worry about competition since you are unique.

The chapter goes on to deal with the difficult subject of parents who actually do prefer one child over another.  The mere thought of that turns my stomach over.  Some of the parents in the book declare clear favourites.  This passage begins with one man admitting that he prefers his daughter to his sons:

“I thought that’s one of the things we’ve been saying here, that we don’t have to worry about convincing the kids we love them all equally.  It is not even humanly possible to love them the same.  I’ll bet each person here has a favourite.  I’m the first to admit that my boys are good kids, but my daughter is the light of my life.”

All my alarms went off.  He sounded much too comfortable about a situation that was potentially dangerous.  Did he have any idea what pain he could inflict upon all his children with that attitude, including the “light of his life”?

“As I see it,” I said, “the problem is not one of having a favourite.  We all experience feelings of partiality towards one child or another, at one time or another.  The problem is how to make sure we don’t show favouritism.  We all know that Cain slew Abel when the Lord showed more “respect” for Abel’s offering.  And we also know that Joseph’s brethren threw him into a pit in the wilderness because their father loved Joseph more and gave him a coat of many colours.  That was a long time ago, but the feelings that provoked those violent acts are eternal and universal.

“Even here in this room today,” I continued, nodding towards the woman who had told the story of “The Haircut”, “we heard about a little girl who cut off her sister’s hair because her father was enchanted with it.”

“Rapunzel’s sister” looked at me intently.  “The truth is he was enchanted with everything about her.  He was never enchanted with me.”  Her eyes filled.  “I can’t believe it still hurts,” she said.

I wanted to weep for her.  And for all the other children who had to watch the glow in their parent’s eyes and know that it would never be for them.

“This is going to be a tough one,” I said.  “How do we protect the other children in the family from our enthusiasm for that one child who speaks to our heart?”

There was a heavy silence … [then several parents recounted their stories]

“What I hear all of you saying,” I said, “is that if we want to stop showing favouritism, we firts have to be aware that we feel it.  We need to be honest enough to admit the truth to ourselves.  Knowing our bias immediately puts us in a better position to protect our “less favoured children”; and it helps us protect our favoured child, as well, from the pressure of having to maintain his position and from the inevitable hostility of his siblings.”

   The woman who had spoken last wasn’t satisfied.  “What do we do about our guilt?” she asked.  “I can admit that I am partial, but I feel terrible about it.”

“Would it help,” I answered, “to tell yourself that it isn’t necessary to respond to each child with equal passion, and that it’s perfectly normal and natural to have different feelings towards different children?  The only thing that is necessary is that we take another looke at the less favoured child, seek our her specialness, then reflect the wonder of it back to her.  That’s all we can ask of ourselves, and all the children need of us.  By valuing and being partial to each child’s individuality, we make sure that each of our children feels like a number one child.”

Reading this threw up all sorts of emotions in me.  Not about my own daughters (whose picture I’m looking at now, and which makes me smile) because they are very different from each other, and it is easy to love each of them for their uniqueness.  They are physically, temperamentally and emotionally very different.   Both do continually challenge me to reassure them that I do not love the other more, and I do not think I am very good at satisfying them, though I could not bear to choose between them.

I think preferences are fairly rare.  Apparent (not real) preferences are less rare.  Especially where the siblings are different sexes, it is fairly common to see a father doting on his daughter, or a mother who declares she is in love with her son.  It is often easier, less complicated, to love an opposite gender child because they never threaten your own identity, nor do they need to overcome you before they can become adults themselves. 

In another situation one child might be very effective at claiming all the attention, and so appear to be the favourite, but the quieter, less demanding child in the background may pull the mother’s heart strings equally hard as she tries to bring her to the fore.

This was part of an email yesterday from a girl friend of mine who is thoughtfully doing her very best.  I am very proud of her.

I had two letters yesterday from W…  School.  B … (her daughter) is getting the 
Year 6 music prize at Speech day, and your godson is getting the Year  
4 effort prize!  I spoke to his teacher at sports day yesterday and 
she said he really deserves it as he has a fabulous report with all 16 
effort grades being A’s.  He might be an attention seeking little 
whatsit at home, but at least at school he is an angel.  I was so 
proud of them I cried when I read the letters, especially as B
gets so overlooked with D as a brother.

The book is excellent.