If mom loved you best, do you end up a happier adult?

Last night I helped one of my sons do the dishes, but I didn’t help the other son clear the table. Time to reserve a shrink appointment for the table-clearer sometime around 2017?

Or perhaps an appointment with the parole board?

Turns out: No. Neither.

A brilliant study by researchers at Temple University looked at 1369 siblings between the ages of 26 and 74. The idea was to find out whether the ones who felt their parents had been harder on them than on their siblings ended up with a chip on their shoulders the size of a dishwasher. A chip that made them mad, sad and bad the rest of their lives.

Happily for all of us parents worried about the very same thing, there was no evidence that the once-resentful kids ended up less happy than their mom-loves-me-best brothers and sisters. Or, as the report put it: negative early experiences with parents over levels of discipline seem to have little influence over adult psychological well being.

This is a good little lesson to remember as we go through our days worrying about whether we are doing everything absolutely “right” as parents. We worry about saying the wrong thing, encouraging our kid too much or too little, and – when we have more than one kid – we worry that we’re not always fair.

But since it’s actually impossible to be totally fair – and in our house, my Solomonic attempts have backfired, turning my boys into niggling little nuts when it comes to whether one or the other got a milliliter more root beer, or extra nanosecond on the computer – it’s good to know that somewhere down the line, it doesn’t really matter.

I hesitate to generalize, but I have a sneaking suspicion that quite a few of our parenting decisions probably don’t matter that much down the line, either. (Organic Rice Krispies? One year of ballet or two? No MySpace account until you type 30 words per minute, which is the deal in our house?) But it’s probably true.

Try to be fair – enough. Try to be kind. But also try to remind yourself as well as them: Nobody always gets it  right.

(But that’s not an excuse to avoid clearing the table.)

32 Responses

  1. “… my Solomonic attempts have backfired, turning my boys into niggling little nuts when it comes to whether one or the other got a milliliter more root beer, or extra nanosecond on the computer.”

    Yes, yes and yes!!! Preach it, sistah! That is exactly what has happened in our house, only we have 4 girls. It makes me crazy. It makes me want to flash pictures of starving children in Africa (or elsewhere) in front of their faces so we can really talk about what’s fair and what’s not fair. Not that I would actually do that, but it gets to a fundamental issue that seems more important than “is it fair?” which is “is it just?”

    Anyway, I really needed to hear this today. I’ve been feeling crushed under the weight of all my parental failures and I needed to hear an external source telling me to lighten up. It’s all going to be okay!

    Thank you for that. I’m a big fan of your blog.

  2. “…Solomonic attempts have backfired, turning my boys into niggling little nuts when it comes to whether one or the other got a milliliter more root beer…”

    This, exactly. I think heroic attempts to create “fairness” actually communicate that it IS, in fact, a contest; you’re just desperately trying to make everyone tie. A better message is that sometimes you’re going to help this person, sometime that one, sometimes you get more, sometimes someone else does. It probably all works out in the end, without having to struggle to get ahead.

  3. LOL, we just had this conversation about 5 minutes ago. How unfair it was that the little brother got 12 minutes on the computer this morning while the big brother only got 10 minutes.

    Just turned off the computer for the day. Problem solved.

  4. Phew, that’s a relief.

    I emailed you a little while back about my son travelling overseas alone and getting lost when he was 15. I am still so happy he had that experience in his life.

    I think my kids are turning out ok. Better than ok. But sibling rivalry between them has often made me question whether I should be doing something different. Am I being “fair” enough?

    Now I will stop worrying about that one. Thank you.

  5. Some of my mom’s most useful words now come out of my mouth, the best of which was “nobody said life was fair, get used to it”. Many of my childhood friends who parents tried to make every thing “fair and friendly” delayed becoming self-sufficient adults by a decade or more. One or two of these still aren’t fully responsible for themselves because (we’re talking people in their late 40s still getting bailed out by parents, and without major deficiencies in IQ, abilities, opportunities, etc.).

    I think trying too hard to mete out absolute fairness, equal portions of goodies, etc., does a disservice and doesn’t prepare kids for the real world. I’m not saying make a deliberate effort o make things unequal, I just think a “cut the last piece of cake reasonably evenly and be done with it”.

  6. *giggle*

    The 10 yr old came to me recently and quite reasonably asked that his weekend bedtime be bumped up a half hour to 10:00. Respecting his initiative, approach and wanting to reward his pro activity, I agreed.

    The 8 yr old found out about this last night and could not for the life of him understand what I meant when I told him, “When you’re 10, yours will go up as well.” To him, it’s just not fair.

  7. “… worrying about whether we are doing everything absolutely “right” as parents.”

    Scarring another person for life isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. If I can’t do it intentionally (and believe me, for the right person, I give it my best shot) then what chance do I have by accident?

    As for allocations of food, drink, whatever, for even numbers of children, one pours or cuts and the other chooses the cup or the slice. You suddenly have children with a measurement precision that an atomic clock cannot match.

  8. Whenever the fairness complaint comes up I try to teach (the obvious) idea that each child gets what is appropriate and fair to them at for their particular circumstances, and it doesn’t have to match what the other child gets. It’s hard to sink in at this age (4&1) but at least it gives me something to distract and confuse them with while they’re trying to complain about some silly inequity! 😉

  9. In Steven Pinker’s book “How the Mind Works,” he cites scientific evidence that very strongly supports your idea that, in the end, our parenting decisions just don’t matter all that much. Identical twins, raised in separate houses, have a tremendous amount in common as adults; genetically unrelated adoptive siblings, raised in the same house all their lives, have no more in common than randomly chosen strangers. It seems that “nature” matters a whole lot, “nurture” very little. (Up to the point of serious abuse, which can of course scar children!)

  10. While I’ll certainly agree that making sure that each child gets precisely the same number of candies in their Christmas stocking is not going to cause a chip on the shoulder, there are unfair practices that do cause problems. For example, if the “baby” never really loses that status and the older kid keeps having to give stuff up because the younger has it.

    I have one particular situation in mind in which the parents counted candies, but the mother would give the younger child anything that she could find a way to give, even if it meant taking something from the older. That kind of unfairness can cause some serious problems. So they (together) were scrupulously fair, but one parent really went off the deep end being unfair and guess what the favorite response was to it all? “Life isn’t fair, get used to it.” Both kids have major issues.

    The point of all this being that by being fair in the big things you can probably get away with that millimeter of root beer. But if you switch it around all the “scrupulous fairness” in the world won’t fix it. I do wonder whether they separated out that kind of thing. The difference between “mama always gave Sister more goodies” and “my parents told me I had to earn a car, but Brother got one because he didn’t stop whining.”

  11. My mama always says, “I will always be fair. I will NOT always be equal.” Every child is unique. Equality isn’t always fair. If it’s, “He got one more candy,” or “He got more root beer,” my answer is always, “Yep, that happens sometimes. Maybe next time you’ll get more.”

  12. “Try to be kind. But also try to remind yourself as well as them: Nobody always gets it right.”

    With three teen daughters I have been kind as to let them use my make-up, my brushes, my lotions and my tweezers/nailclippers if they cannot find their own.

    This morning I gave up! I put all my stuff in a little safe and locked it! They are wonderful girls but do not seem to grasp the concept of putting things back where they belong (and where a mother running late expecects to find her things).

    It will be interesting to see how they react.

  13. Lord, I needed this today.

  14. Tana, your Mama has it just right. Those are the exact words I need to you around the house here!

  15. Thanks for this today. My son is 10 and my very best friend. We are incredibly close and I am blessed that he is amazingly well behaved. Now, baby #2 is on the way and I find myself worrying about maintaining our awesome relationship and harvesting the same with a second…this makes me feel a lot more confident about it. 🙂

  16. I work on the same principle as Tana. I can’t possibly treat all four of my kids equally on the same day, but I strive for a balance. I go to a lot of trade shows and bring home swag for the kids: pens, buttons, etc. Some times things appeal more to one child than another. I might then make a point of looking for something the next time for the other child. But I’d go crazy if I tried to do this on a daily basis. They seem okay so far!

  17. Nothing in life is fair. I heard that refrain constantly through childhood and I hated it. I repeat it now to my own because you know what? When I grew up, I wasn’t expecting a thing and never suffered the horrible disillusioning disappointments that my peers weren’t prepared for because in their sheltered worlds, everything WAS fair!

  18. @crossgirl – I heard that refrain constantly too. When I got out into the world I found that mostly it is, and where it isn’t it usually isn’t legal. What I learned is that PEOPLE are frequently unfair, and life isn’t really a living entity to make fairness decisions. If no decision is made it isn’t really fair or unfair, it comes under the “stuff happens” provision of life. That said, equal isn’t always fair. And, again, I’d be interested in knowing if that list was screened for the maliciously unfair or not.

  19. Karen, I agree. So what if life isn’t fair? Shouldn’t we strive to be more fair in our dealings with others?

    But fairness doesn’t have to mean sameness, and the children aren’t the only ones who need things “fair”. It’s not FAIR that I should spend my life counting raisins to make sure everybody gets the same – so I don’t! As I explain, should it come up, everybody is allowed to get more when they’re done anyway, and besides, it’s bound to even out sooner or later. It’s not FAIR that I should spend my time arbitrating stupid fights, such an imposition on my time – so I don’t! I make it clear that if I have to be dragged in to decide whose toy it is, nobody is going to be very happy.

    And many of the things the nieces think aren’t fair actually, in fact, are. Is it fair that their friend gets to eat lots of junk food and they don’t? Yup, definitely – because she has things she’s not allowed to do that they are, and as long as everybody consistently follows their family’s rules, that’s fair! (Besides, in my snottier moments I point out that I love them too much to fill them up with garbage – but that’s another story for another day.) Is it fair that the little one has to hold my hand but the bigger one doesn’t? Sure is! The little one, being little, is less trustworthy and it wouldn’t be very nice to let her get into real danger on a busy street. Is it fair that one kid got a treat when the other didn’t because she wasn’t there? Sure is – because when the tables are turned I know I never hear her whining *then*. So long as I’m not deliberately giving one all the cookies and the other nary a crumb, it’s bound to even out eventually.

    What people mean to say when they say that life isn’t fair is that life doesn’t always work the way we want. Which it doesn’t. And it’s not fair to your kids to let them think it does.

  20. Yeah – my mom STILL worries herself into a frenzy over whether or not she’s being “fair” – with four girls in their 30s. Most of us (I think there might be one holdout) don’t actually care about fairness, despite a full childhood of “she got a bigger cookie”. We’ve agreed amongst ourselves to the idea that things among ourselves won’t always be fair, and that that doesn’t matter. Instead, those of us who can try to give more heavily than those who can’t. Speaking for myself, I’ve even encouraged my mother to give or loan my two younger sisters money, so they can buy their first homes. It won’t be a source of hard feelings; I’m doing fine, and it’s not as if any of them are leeches. Besides, I had my turn.

    At the end of the day, what matters is that each child knows that their needs will be met and their wishes respected. Any fairness beyond that is meaningless button-counting that does nothing to further happiness or closeness.

  21. i don’t think it matters as much with things like that but punishments or time outs should be equal

  22. Renee, that is exactly what I try to teach my children; that they should not be sad because their loved ones are happy, because in the long run they will end up being happy only when others are sad.
    In other words, love is much more important than fairness.

  23. My oldest are 24 and 26 and they still have sibling rivalry, it is human nature to compare yourself with others and who closer than your brother. They love each other through it all. My sisters and I still have a healthy dose of sibling rivalry, we love each other and all comes out ok in the end. All I keep saying is “really, don’t worry about it, it really is all just small stuff”.

  24. In our house, our favorite saying is, “Life isn’t fair so get used to it, but you should know that life is much more fair in your favor than for 90% of the world, so get over -whatever-.”

  25. Its good to know I am not ruining my children for not always being fair. I think in the long run I am, but not the day to day. They each need personal attention at different times, so I think it works out. But it is hard when one proclaims you love the other one more. I do find myself saying “life is not fair” which I do think this is an important lesson.

  26. There’s a balance here — shoot for fairness, but don’t obsess over it.

    The story in my grandmother’s family goes that her oldest sister was unabashedly and extravagantly favored over the other girls, and I think my grandmother did carry some scars from it for all her 81 years. But that was an extreme case — parents who try to treat their kids with decent equity and fairness but don’t always succeed, aren’t “ruining” them every time they lean a little too far one way.

    As with so many things, attitude is everything. Maintain the attitude that your kids all deserve reasonably fair treatment, and you needn’t obsess over whether every decision is a perfect instantiation of that principle.

  27. How ’bout a “fair day” once a week or month, when the designated child gets to decide what’s fair?

    Of course, in our family, the oldest would get fair day half as many times…just to be fair!

    BTW, this would be a variation of our occasional “favorite child” day–we do this on birthdays anyway, don’t we? (not so fair for the twins)

    Also, maybe, too? A special savings fund for future therapy for each one. Having a licensed therapist for a datty can’t be good.

    Love y’alls!

  28. Well in order to help out, when I was growing up I was good friends with a neighbor. Although the mom was divorced their older son was a star athlete and looked at as being the best child ever. Seemed like he could never do anything wrong, even when cops came to the house because of a huge party he threw. Anyways the younger daughter always got yelled at, “you need to be more like your brother.” She was also really good at sports but her mom and dad never went to her games. Growing up she started out normal, but as she got in her teens she started to change. Honestly she was a beautiful girl, but then she decided to turn gothic. I believe this was due to trying to get attention. Just shows that you need to treat all of the children equally and not have a favorite no matter what they accomplish!

  29. interesting topic.
    from this post i learn many things.

    Love you All

  30. i don’t think it matters as much with things like that but punishments or time outs should be equal

  31. I was the first child, my mum clearly loves me the best 🙂

  32. Excellent article. I definitely love this site. Thanks!

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