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How can I treat my kids the same when they are so different?

Amanda Kowal, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Human Development & Family Studies, Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri


Do you ever find it hard to treat your children exactly the same? You’re not alone. “It’s not fair!” is a phrase many parents hear when they treat their children differently. Different bedtimes, punishments, and privileges may all be occasions for children to become angry or upset.

Parents put a lot of pressure on themselves trying to treat their children equally, but children have such different needs and personalities that it can be impossible, if not impractical, to treat them exactly the same. Recent research on how and why parents treat children differently has shown that parents should try to give each child what he or she needs, rather than attempt to treat children exactly equally.

Practical Hints:
Rather than worrying about treating children equally, treat them uniquely. For example:


  • Instead of giving equal amounts:
    “Here, now you have just as many grapes as your sister."
    Give according to individual need:
    “Do you want a few grapes or a big bunch?”


  • Instead of showing equal love:
    “I love you the same as your brother”
    Show the child that he or she is loved uniquely:
    “You are the only ‘you’ in the whole wide world, no one could ever take your place.”


  • Instead of giving equal time:
    ”After I’ve spent ten minutes with your sister, I’ll spend ten minutes with you.”
    Give time according to need:
    “I know I’m spending a lot of time with your sister, she’s having a hard time understanding this new math. When she and I are done I want to hear about your day.”

When children see parents’ differential treatment as justified they have less negative feelings about it overall. What can parents do to raise children’s awareness that each of their needs are being met?


  • Family discussions can help children understand why parents need to treat them differently. It’s important to talk to your kids about their individual needs and to assure them that each of their needs will be met, even if it’s not at the same time or in the same way.
  • Discussions are also opportunities for your kids to voice their concerns or ideas about differential treatment.

Children who are aware that they and their siblings have unique needs that parents meet in different ways tend to have better relationships with their sibling and parents, and have better developmental outcomes such as higher self-esteem and fewer behavior problems.


Faber, A. & Mazlish (1987). Sibling's Without Rivalry. New York: Avon.

Kowal, A., & Kramer, L. (1997). Children's perceptions of parental differential treatment. Child Development, 68, 113-126.

Kowal, A., Kramer, L., Krull, J., & Crick, C. (2002). Children’s perceptions of the fairness of parental preferential treatment and their socioemotional well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 16, 297-306.


Last Updated 05/13/2009









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