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Are You Playing Favorites?

How to keep your other child from feeling like he's "second best."

You're not fair! You're playing favorites! You love my brother more than me!"

Is there a parent alive who hasn't heard one of these statements?

Let's face it: It's impossible to always treat our children fairly. As parents, we all make mistakes—and it's normal to suffer from guilt and worry that we've damaged our children. We may even wonder if they'll ever get along with each other or appreciate us when they're grown up!

As you wade through the accusations of "playing favorites," here are some insights to help you.

Parents Aren't Perfect
It's tough being a parent. And there are no perfect parents, only sinful parents trying to do the best they can with God's help. It doesn't hurt to remind your children of this fact sometimes by saying something such as this: "Honey, I know you think I'm treating you unfairly. You may feel like I favor your sister/brother. But you need to know I love each of you. I may be making a mistake with this decision—but I have to do what I think is best. One day when you have children, you can choose to do things differently."

Take Time for the "Problem" Child
Sometimes you may feel that you don't "like" one of your children. Don't panic—it's normal. Perhaps your child's going through a difficult stage, or she's so strong-willed that she tests you at every turn. Maybe your child's so different from you that you can't relate easily to him—or she's so similar, you constantly butt heads.

Often what's needed is time together with your child (without an agenda) to become reacquainted. Determine to spend extra time simply "hanging out"--doing something he or she likes. It helps ease the tension and demonstrates your love and commitment to your child. Remember, when your child accuses you of loving his sibling more than you love him, he's often really asking for some reassurance of your love.

Distinguish Between Character Traits and Personalities
Character traits include thoughtfulness, self-discipline, respect, and the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

Personality, on the other hand, refers to the unique way God's created a child. One child may be unusually sensitive, another may possess unusual leadership or artistic gifts, and so forth.

It's important not to confuse character training with personality traits. It's fine to have a different parenting approach based on your children's differing personalities—but make sure you expect the same standards of character in each of your children.

For example, in our family, our son's expected to help cook and clean even if it's not "his thing"--and our daughter must learn to speak politely to adults even if she's shy.

A parent who's lax in disciplining a strong-willed child because she fears she might stifle his creativity is making a mistake. Self-discipline is a character trait and every child needs to learn it. It may be tough and unpleasant. But remember, it's not what your child thinks of you now that's as important as what he thinks of you twenty years from now.

Don't Compare Your Children
Our friend Joe was the first of two boys. Because he was so athletic, he was the apple of his father's eye. His dad loved to roughhouse with him and he encouraged him to be tough. Joe's younger brother, Jeff, was a very sensitive child with a slight build. He disliked sports and shunned physical activity. His tendency to recoil from aggressive play irritated his dad, and he began to make fun of his son by saying, "You need to be like your brother, Joe." But Jeff couldn't, and he soon became the object of sarcastic comments and subtle ridicule. It was no surprise that the boys began to dislike each other. Today, as adults, the siblings have nothing to do with each other.

This is an extreme case, but the message is clear. Don't compare your children with each other. Instead, study the unique way God made each one, and nurture their individual gifts. Train them to support and cheer for each other.

My wise mother often says of her fifteen grandchildren, "What I like the most about my grandkids is that each one's so different. It's so much fun to know fifteen unique individuals!"

Remember, Kids Can Change
Don't label your child "the rebellious one" or "my withdrawn one." You may be giving your children a reputation they feel they have to live up to. Labeling also sends the message that they're "stuck in a rut," that being able to change is unlikely. Even saying "You're just like me" may make a child feel stuck. Instead, say, "You know, I remember feeling like you do now … "

Your child needs the hope and assurance that we believe God can do anything in his or her life. God has a special plan for your child, so pray for him or her. Be encouraging—and give your child a sense of hope.

God Ordered Your Family
If you're troubled by a child, it's easy to focus on how you're handling the situation or why his behavior is so bad. You can work yourself into a great deal of guilt. But remember, God gives you the children he does so they might be used as tools in your life to help you become the woman God's created you to be. Sometimes it's the most difficult child who's used by God for his special purpose in your life.

God also ordains birth order. He chose that specific child to be in the middle. Rest assured, he's placed your children in the birth order he knew was the best for them and for your family. God's even more concerned with their self-image than you are.

Ask God what he has to teach you through each of your children. And then thank him for these blessings!

-Susan Alexander Yates is an author and mom to five children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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