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Parenting your children as individuals

Happy children having fun in summer park
Credit: iStock.com/ArtMarie

For families with more than one child, sibling rivalry and the genetic lottery that gives rise to a range of different talents can complicate parenting. However, focusing on each child’s individual strengths can enable parents to support their self-esteem.

Professor Matthew Sanders is a Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Parenting and Family Support Centre at the University of Queensland.

He says the most important thing parents have to recognise is that there will always be individual differences between children in the family. 

“They are never at an identical point in terms of physical, language, emotional development, social skills or experience, especially if they are of different ages,” Professor Sanders says.

This means older children will always serve as role models for their younger siblings, a fact that often creates challenges for parents.

“The younger kids want to do the same things as the older kids as they are in the same living space,” Professor Sanders says. 

Giving in to a younger child’s desire to do something their older sibling does isn’t necessarily the right answer, and not simply because their skills and level of development are different or the risk level is too high.

“Parents really do need to accept that kids within the same family who may share a lot genetically are never raised in the same environment,” Professor Sanders says.

“Every child’s environment is a unique one, and when it comes to developing their interests and capabilities parents need to be tuned into what each individual child seems to be good at and likes to do, and not try to always treat them as a group.”

He adds that being consistent about ground rules about what activities or freedoms are allowed at a particular age will go a long way towards maintaining household harmony

Every child’s environment is a unique one, and when it comes to developing their interests and capabilities parents need to be tuned into what each individual child seems to be good at and likes to do, and not try to always treat them as a group.
Professor Matthew Sanders

Supporting different interests

Different interests go hand in hand with differing abilities. A four-year-old may be wonderful at kicking a ball but scared of the water, while a seven-year-old may be a fantastic swimmer with poor hand-eye coordination. 

The challenge for parents is to support the interests of each. Schedules and the logistics that come with busy family life can make doing this complicated, and often results in a scenario where parents say, “It’s too hard”. The result is that all children end up playing soccer or netball as one child is good at it. 

While it’s a tempting solution, Professor Sanders says this is often a mistake.

“There are some advantages in collective family involvement in an activity that’s enjoyed by all, but the principle is to tune into what your children like to do and try to create opportunities for them to participate in that,” Professor Sanders says.

Supporting children’s self esteem

The key to supporting all children’s self esteem regardless of their level of ability at the activity in question is to provide encouragement and feedback regardless of capability. 

“Parents should be looking for gradual improvements in their capacity. It’s not a comparison situation where kids are competing against each other: instead children are always being benchmarked against their own prior performance and effort,” Professor Sanders says.

An excellent way to support this type of family environment is to use one dinnertime a week as a chance to support each other’s achievements and interests.

Take turns going around the table, allowing children the opportunity to each share one thing that was special or fun for them during the week.

“That’s a great context as children are getting used to sharing information about what they do with an interested audience. That audience is practising the skills of simply listening or asking an interested question,” Professor Sanders says.

While this exercise is good for those developing new abilities, it also helps the children who have lots of achievements under their belt practise simply talking about one accomplishment in a way that’s not bragging.

“That’s an important social skill,” Professor Sanders says.

For older siblings, when it’s the turn of their younger brother or sister to share, their job is to simply listen and not pass judgement.

“It’s about giving all kids fair air time,” he says.

In order to discourage an environment where sibling rivalry pervades, this type of technique is just as important to use in challenging times.

“You can have weeks that aren’t always plain sailing. Challenges and difficulties are okay too. You want to create a sense that as family members our job is to support each other, not to compare or gloat,” Professor Sanders says.

Ultimately, parents need to keep coming back to what is unique and special about each of their children, regardless of their abilities, personality or interest.

“Yes, they will likely share some things in common, which means there are things you can all share as a family.  But it’s inevitable that some children will be much better than others at some things. That’s perfectly acceptable and normal,” Professor Sanders.

Rewards usually follow if the family’s focus is on developing skills rather than getting to an ‘end goal’.

“It means children will always have a sense of satisfaction that they are getting better at doing things. Even if they are coming in the second half of the field in a race, they’ll understand that’s worthy of celebration and note,” Professor Sanders says.

Top tips for parenting your children as individuals

  • Remember that each child is an individual. They may have different interests or abilities to their siblings and should be encouraged for this.
  • Whatever your children are interested in, focus your praise on gradual improvement and effort rather than outcomes.
  • Find a way to get the whole family involved in supporting each other’s interests.
  • Dinner times are an excellent opportunity to give everyone in the family an opportunity to share something exciting or noteworthy. Ensure everyone gets equal airtime and teach older children that their role is to simply listen when siblings are talking.