Cherishing the differences in children places different meaning on 'fair'

When my second son was born, just 12 months after the first, I received a piece of advice which has become my child-rearing motto: ''Contrast your children, but never compare them. Treat each as an individual, and cherish their differences.''

On the surface, such advice seems simple; what parent doesn't want her offspring to grow up as individuals? But because my sons were so close in age (and because two more followed in quick succession), it would have been easy for me to fall into the trap of treating them all alike, considering them as a small (and rambunctious) gang while overlooking their unique talents, abilities, and differences. Instead, I've tried to view each child as ''special'' and to tailor my treatment to suit his specific needs.

Comparing children to one another (''Why can't you be like your brother?'') sets up impossible standards, since no two youngsters are alike, nor do they view the world in the same way. In our home, therefore, we try to contrast instead, by pointing out positive qualities in each child and letting him know he is valuable just the way he is. ''Tim likes to take his time,'' ''Isn't it nice to have an athlete in the family?'' ''You make the most beautiful drawings!'' are comments designed to approve of the child without setting up a comparison with another sibling. Thus freed to be himself, each child can then pursue his own special talents.

Raising children as individuals and cherishing their differences also means that parents must abandon efforts to provide ''equal rights'' - exactly the same treatment at the same time. If Mary shows an interest in ballet, it's certainly not necessary that her sister Sue also be given lessons in ballet or even archery! Sue's talents may lie in a completely different direction; further, she may not even be interested in pursuing them at this time. Attempting to compensate one child because another is temporarily receiving favored treatment may appear to be ''fair,'' but instead it creates a tit-for-tat merry-go-round resulting in aggrieved offspring and weary parents.

Instead, children should be allowed to grow and develop at their own pace, totally unrelated to what a brother or sister might be doing. And if Sue asks why Mary is receiving ballet lessons, the answer is simple: ''Because she likes to dance.'' Implied in that answer is the reassurance that ''Your turn will come too, when you find something you like.''

While jealousy can be fairly common among siblings, I've found that the ''cherish their differences'' philosophy can often diffuse such feelings. Jealousy, after all, is rooted in fear - ''Will Mom and Dad love me as much as they love my sister?'' So if parents build a home where all sorts of differences are not only noticed but enjoyed, then a child feels less competitive and much more secure.

One of our sons plays golf, another is a debater, and a third joined the school band. My husband and I have encouraged them all to share their expertise with the family and have shown a genuine delight in their accomplishments. Thus, rather than regarding each other as rivals for our affection and approval, the kids now feel secure enough to be ''different,'' to bask in their positions as ''experts'' and take pride in one another's growth. ''Wouldn't it be boring,'' a son once asked, ''if God had made us all the same?''

All I can add is a grateful ''Amen!''

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