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.
Different kids Your younger child thrives on a very strict schedule, while his older sibling is good at rolling with the punches.
Nancy Dodson's first child, Ben, was an easy baby. "He would eat anything, sleep anywhere, and let anyone hold him, so we'd just pack him up and go," says the Newberg, Oregon, mom. His little brother, Jonathan, was the opposite: He had a hard time with transitions and always needed to know what was coming next. "For us to live a happy life with him, we had to maintain a strict routine," says Dodson.
Fussy personality types are common. "Some kids need more regularity than others," says Dr. Schonfeld. "They're hungry at the same time every day, they go to bed at the same time, and they fall apart when you mess with any of it."
Different rules When you need to choose between your kids? competing agendas, oil your squeaky wheel first. If that means your easygoing child has to cut short a playdate because his sensitive sib needs to eat lunch at 11:30, don't sweat it: All kids tend to thrive on a routine. But make an effort to compromise whenever possible. If one child's regimen gets in the way, appease the other by saying something like, "We can't go to the movie because it ends too late for Billy's nap, but we'll rent one instead that you and I can watch together."
Different kids One of your two children is totally cooperative and agreeable, while the other one seems to fight you at every turn.
If nurture trumps nature, how is it possible to have one child who leaps at every chance to earn a sticker and another who couldn't care less how many gold stars he needs to log before you'll take him to the amusement park? The answer is that nature is a powerful force. Even if you bring up your kids the same way, their varying temperaments will become clear by around age 2, says William Coleman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Richard Johnson, a father from Brooklyn, would agree. His 2-year-old son, Edward, consistently tests the boundaries in a way that his 4-year-old daughter, Josie, never has. "Time-outs with Edward only work if you sit with him and let him know you're angry by refusing to engage him," Johnson says. "Whereas Josie will sit as if she's glued to the chair until she's released by apologizing and getting a 'magic hug.'"
He and his wife, Karen, barely had to childproof their house for cautious Josie. But to keep their daredevil son out of harm's way, they've taken down picture frames above the couch and made their small kitchen completely off-limits to both kids (putting locks on the cabinets and cupboard just in case). "We got tired of having to reprimand Edward all the time, so we've taken extra steps to ensure his safety," Johnson says.
Different rules Just because your disciplinary strategy was successful with one child doesn't mean it will fly with your second (or third, or fourth). If a kid isn't responding to your approach, make adjustments. He may just need a tighter leash than his sibling does. And if incentives aren't getting him to clean up his toys, you may have to take away his Legos for a day. Figure out what works for each child, and go with it.
Different kids Your oldest (or youngest) child demands a lot more attention than the others do.
Despite having five siblings to compete with -- two older, three younger -- 9-year-old McKenzie takes center stage whenever she has a fight with a friend or thinks a teacher has been unfair to her. "I have to stop whatever I'm doing, sit down, and hold her hands so she can tell me everything that's on her mind," says her mom, Jeni Rector, from Hampton, Virginia.
Her brothers and sisters don't require the same degree of reassurance. Living in a big family has taught them to deal with stress in their own way. "Some of them yell, some of them cry, some of them hide in their room," says Rector. "So if McKenzie needs my attention, the other kids understand that."
Is it right to let one kid demand more of you? "There's no need to feel guilty about it," says Sybil L. Hart, Ph.D., author of Preventing Sibling Rivalry: Six Strategies to Build a Jealousy-Free Home. "Children require different things to feel secure, whether it's talking to you all day or a dose of nighttime cuddling. Your job is to give each of them what they need."
Age can be another factor in the attention equation. A toddler who's constantly pulling out the plugs or scaling the bookcase is bound to take up more of your time than a 6-year-old who colors quietly on her own for 30 minutes. But some kids are simply wired to be high maintenance, regardless of their birth order or developmental stage.
Different rules If one of your kids feels overshadowed by another, explain why you can't always give him as much attention as you'd wish. Say something like, "Your little sister needs Mommy right now because she could get hurt unless I'm watching her." Make sure you spend some extra time with him when you have a free minute.
Different kids You share a special interest with one child more than another.
Chances are your kids won't all have the same hobbies -- and that you'll be more into some of their passions than others. So if you like to scrapbook with your daughter while Dad prefers to hang at the park with your son, that's okay. "You can't expect to have the same connection with all of your kids," says Dr. Coleman. The challenge is to find ways to bond with each child, whether you have lots -- or little -- in common.
Different rules If you take one kid to soccer every week, block out a regular time to do something your nonathletic child likes, whether it's going to a comic-book store or visiting a science museum. "You might even develop new interests," says Dr. Hart. "I know dads who have told me, 'I never thought I'd be into ballet, but I enjoy spending time with my daughter and watching her perform.'" Don't make these outings contingent on good behavior or cancel them if they conflict with someone else's schedule; they should be unconditional.
Different kids Your daughter needs constant guidance with her schoolwork, while your son cruises through every subject without your help.
Carolyn Harper, of Atlanta, says the contrast between her two kids, Isabelle, 9, and Ethan, 7, is most obvious when they're doing homework. Isabelle rushes through assignments with scant attention to detail and needs constant reminders to slow down. Ethan, by contrast, is highly organized and a perfectionist. "Isabelle needs more help staying on task," says Harper. "I have to sit by her side the whole time to keep her focused on her work."
As a parent, you don't have to apologize for spending more time with a kid who's struggling than one who's excelling. "Give your attention where it's needed," says Dr. Hart.
Different rules Make it clear to your kids that you'll do whatever it takes for each of them to succeed in school. While helping out with homework (as needed) is part of that, your ultimate goal is to get them to complete the assignment on their own. Let your diligent student know that when he has a school-related problem -- whether it involves math, geography, friendships, or something else entirely -- you'll be there to help him. You can even the attention out a bit by offering to work on a special project together that will wow his teachers and his classmates later.
When you take a different approach with each kid, help them realize that you're not playing favorites.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.