No, I Don't Love All My Kids The Same

They’re all different — so I love them all differently.

Written by Ashley Schuster Downend
Originally Published: 
Happy siblings having fun while holding hands with their parents and running during spring day in na...
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Every parent with more than one kid has heard it: “you love [insert sibling’s name here] more than me.” Heck, I remember saying it and believing it about my younger sibling. My instant reaction when I hear these comments from my kids is to deny, deny, deny and emphatically claim: “I love you all the same!” This was exactly what my mom said to me as a child. I imagine she felt the same way as I do, that I don’t want any of my kids to feel unwanted, unloved or less than. I especially don’t want them to feel this way because of something I’ve said or done.

But if I’m honest with myself, do I actually love them all the same? No, not at all. My love for each of my kids is wildly different. My kids know it and I knew it as a kid too. At first glance this truth feels uncomfortable. But I’m learning that different doesn’t mean lesser. It means I love them as individuals not as objects. I have a unique relationship with each of them. To put it simply, it means that I’m human and they are human and ultimately this is a good thing.

Besides this fact, when I dismiss my children’s comments with a blanket “I love you all the same,” they don’t believe a word of it and rightly so. They draw the same conclusion that I did as a child: that my mom was just saying what she was supposed to say. I went right on believing that I was the less desirable sibling.

In attempting to reframe these comments and learn to respond in a more honest and empathetic way, there are three things I need to constantly remind myself of:

It is normal for kids to compare themselves to their siblings.

It can seem ridiculous when my daughter claims I love her brother more when I help him fold his laundry but not her. She is 12 and he is 8. When I interpret her comments as abnormal, it makes me feel like she’s being unreasonable or that I have gone wrong in showing her love. But in reality, this doesn’t need to be a blame game at all – the reality is that sibling comparisons arise even in the most loving families and well-adjusted kids. They are normal. They are part of how our kids discover their place in family and in the world.

Feelings of sibling inequity are real for kids.

We can get caught up in trying to prove to our kids that what they feel is not objectively true. But the reality is, to them, it feels real. Our job as parents is not to change our kids’ minds, but to witness and respond to them. We don’t have to agree with them, but we also don’t need to change their minds. When we do so, it ends in a fruitless debate that leaves us no more connected than when we started.

It is normal to have different connections with different kids.

This is a big one for me. I can easily get on the guilt train, feeling that I should feel differently towards my kids. But the reality is that sometimes I share interests with my son (curling up with a good book) rather than my daughter and sometimes my personality (introspective and sensitive) vibes better with my daughter than with my son. Sometimes one of my kids is going through a developmental phase (ahem, puberty) that makes it difficult to be around them. There are infinite things that affect our connection with our kids and it's not static, but changes as we and our kids change. And, sometimes love is most purely expressed when we continue to care and be committed to our kids despite difficult connections.

Once I have gotten clear on what is happening, I have a better chance of responding to my kids in a way that leaves both of us feeling better rather than worse. Here are some things that I’ve found helpful:

Acknowledge the hurt.

Oftentimes witnessing our kids with full acceptance and genuine attempts at understanding does more to address the situation than any other thing we could do. This sounds simple but can be very difficult when I don’t agree at all with their complaints. It can help to remember that what they are expressing is not necessarily even about me. And seeing them does not mean that I have to agree with them. I now have an array of phrases I can pull out: “You feel like I’m being unfair;” “It must be hard to feel like I love your sibling more;” “I’m so sorry you feel left out;” “Tell me more about this.”

Talk about how love looks different with each relationship.

This may not be the best thing to bring up while a child is actively in distress about sibling inequity. It can come across as trying to change their mind and can quickly become an argument. Instead talk about this truth outside of the moment. Comment on how the dog shows you love by licking your face, but shows other dogs love by chasing them around the dog park. Comment on how you love going to yoga with your friend Annie but connect better with Jane through sending silly memes back and forth.

Make sure your kids know that love is not a limited resource.

Again, this may not be the best thing to talk about at the moment of crisis, but at other times expound on the ways love multiplies, unfolds, expands, and envelops.

Tell and show your kids why you love them.

This one is self-explanatory. Celebrate each child’s uniqueness and your unique relationship. Tell them specifically what you love about them. Learn how your kid best receives love and try to find ways to express love to them in this way.

Leaning into these conversations has expanded my understanding of love and relationships and I hope it is doing the same for my kids. It’s not always perfect, but it's not supposed to be. How do you respond when your kid accuses you of loving their sibling more?

Ashley Schuster Downend lives in Oakland, California with her husband, four kids and lovable but curmudgeonly eight pound dog. She writes about parenting, foster care, and mental health. Follow her on Instagram @ashleyschusterdownend.

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