All's Fair

Dear Parentworks, 

My two children fight like cats and dogs over EVERY little thing! "That's not fair!" "He got more than me!" "She got to sit next to you last time!" They're driving me nuts. I try to everything I can to make sure that I remember who got what so I can be fair but nothing is ever enough for them. They're 18 months apart and have been going at it like this for almost ten years and I'm getting just plain worn out. How can I make them see I really am a fair parent?

- Fairly Done In

Dear Fairly,

I'll let you in on a couple of secrets: First, YOU CAN'T. Period. The End. No parent will ever be able to be fair "enough" or remember well enough or convince their child that their love is exactly, precisely equal. Now, here's the second secret: STOP TRYING. Really! Because, regardless of what the supposed "issue" is, all fights lead back to one thing - what they really want, what they're really fighting over is you. So the best thing you can do for yourself and for your children is to completely stop playing the "Fairness Game". The main reason why you want to do this is because you will absolutely never win.

A couple of wonderful books that that deal with sibling issues are "Siblings Without Rivalry" by Faber & Mazlish and "Loving Each One Best" by Nancy Samalin with Catherine Whitney. These authors discuss solutions for helping children cope with their very natural competitive nature. The second book, in particular, deals with these issues from the standpoint that what we can really do to help our children see that they are loved is to deal with each of them as the unique person that they are inside.

I was once told that children with a spacing of 18 months or less are sometimes referred to as "Irish Twins". If you think about it, it makes sense. Because they are so close in age they are truly on each others heals as far as development. They are frequently going through similar emotional growth issues around the same time. As parents, it's often easy to a) just try to treat them both the same and b) continually expect the older one to know better and pressure them to take the lead in getting along with the younger one. These two approaches are pretty diametrically opposed and can lead to some of the competition and angry feelings that you're seeing.

So, by treating each child as the unique human being that they are - their own needs, their own personality style, their own interests then they can begin to feel special to you and not just part of a package. It takes more work at times to do this but what you're really doing is saving time and energy in the long run. With time and your patience, they will come to see that you love them enough to give them exactly what they need. Not what's fair but what is the right thing for them. (Don't think they'll thank you for this for a long time but they will still try to play the fairness game they'll just come to see you're not falling for it anymore.)

The final secret that I've come to believe is that it is crucial for you to not only carve out special, predictable one on one time with each of your children but to put words to that experience. Over the years of observing many hundreds of children, I have come to the conclusion that since we take in information through our senses and that a child can clearly SEE what their sibling is receiving. They perceive that that child is getting more. It's because they can't see themselves and their own experiences with you - they're simply living it and don't realize they're actually getting their own special time with you. So you need to tell them. Let them experience the time with you through your words; "I'm glad that you and I have this special time together." "I count on spending our time together because you're fun to be with..." whatever it is that fits for your situation. But you must help them by labeling it, with words for them. You must also be sure and have that predictability. Whether it's each night at bedtime, every Friday or every third Sunday it doesn't matter what you're able to set aside as much as the predictable day. When they can come to count on you and your special time with them then they can know they're going to get you all to themselves. For that brief amount of time they don't have to share, they don't have to be a part of some other child's compromise they can count on you therefore they can let go of trying to compete for you every other minute of every day. And that my dear is good for them and it is great for you.