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When she's trying to tame a tantrum, Sarahbeth Spasojevich's remedy depends on which of her kids is pitching the fit. If 4-year-old Jack is melting down because someone messed with his dinosaur toys, she gives him space to regain his composure on his own. But if it's Andrew, 2, who's upset, cuddling is the only cure. "Jack chills out best by himself, Andrew needs human contact, and who knows what will calm my baby, Simone?" says Spasojevich, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "Different children need different things."
Spasojevich's instincts are spot-on: When it comes to raising children, parents learn very quickly that one style doesn't necessarily fit all. While it's natural to want to set consistent standards and give each child the same amount of attention, the truth is that you can be fair without being equal.
"Children have varying personalities, so it makes sense to treat them as individuals," says Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her studies, carried out over two decades (and published in the journal Social Development in 2006), found that when parents treat children differently, the kids do just fine as long as they feel the contrasting standards being set for them are fair. Customizing your parenting style may even bring you and your kids closer, largely because doing so makes it easier to meet each child's needs.
Of course it would be simpler if the exact same strategies worked for every child. "But that's one of the challenges of being a parent -- getting to know your kids' unique needs and figuring out how you can best meet them," explains David Schonfeld, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, in Ohio. To make that task easier, we've identified common sibling contrasts that call for an individualized approach.