If you have more than one child, you know that the struggle of dividing things equally is real. Who hasn’t counted out the M&Ms in a bag to make sure that each of your adorable children gets no more and no fewer than their beloved siblings? (Obviously, the extra goes to Mommy.) And who hasn’t resorted to the iPhone timer to make sure that your child has tangible proof that his sibling isn’t getting a longer turn at something? Children are vigilant watchdogs to make sure that all resources – from snack food to their parents’ time and attention – are distributed equally among siblings. We parents often misguidedly get hung up on the very same thing.
When my twins were babies and my daughter was a toddler, I tortured myself over whether everyone was getting an equal share of my time, my love, my attention. I would track how much one-on-one time I spent with each child daily – never mind the quality, it was all about quantity. I went to hear a parenting expert speak about sibling relationships and I asked the question, “How can I make sure that I am treating each child equally?” Her answer completely changed my approach to this issue: “It’s not about being equal, it’s about being fair.”
I realized that trying to make everything equal was driving me insane, when my goal was really to be fair. Being equal is spending the exact same number of minutes with each child. Being fair is making sure that each child gets the attention he or she needs, when he or she needs it. For example, one day you might spend a lot more time with a child who is struggling, but it is not unfair to his siblings because when any one of them is having a difficult day, they know that they will get the time that they need. My children don’t expect to get a present on their sibling’s birthday – because although it would be “equal” for everyone to get a gift that day, what is fair is that everyone gets presents on his or her own birthday.
Following this principle has helped me mediate sibling disputes and cope with some of my own conflicted feelings about allocating time and resources among multiple children. I have sometimes had to point out examples to the kids – like should they all have to receive speech therapy just because one sibling needs it? If one gets a consequence for doing something, should they all get the same consequence just because that’s “equal”? They are now able to count on the fact that it’s my priority that everyone will get what they need. I don’t know for sure, but I certainly hope that this comfort has helped them stop searching for equality in every little thing. I have seen my kids apply this concept to relationships with teachers and friends as well. If they see a student getting extra support, they understand that it may not feel equal (“Why didn’t I get extra time to finish the exam?”) but it IS fair because everyone gets what he or she needs.
Of course, my kids still require me to split the last piece of gum in quarters and time their siblings’ TV shows to make sure that everyone gets an equal turn. I still have frequent “mommy guilt” about how my time and attention can possibly be divided among four demanding little people (if anyone has any suggestions, please let me know). But keeping in mind what is fair as opposed to what is equal has helped reduce some of the conflict – and in a chaotic household, every little bit counts.
This post is part of a series of essays by the contributors to our second anthology, Multiples Illuminated: Life with Twins and Triplets, the Toddler to Twin Years. Subscribe to get new posts on your favorite reader as and when they’re published.
Amy Kestenbaum lives in Los Angeles with her four children ages 4-10 (including twin boys, age 8) and her husband, Mark. Originally from Chicago, Amy graduated from Emory University and UCLA School of Law. In the rare moments when she’s not in carpool lines, Amy holds leadership positions in several nonprofit organizations in her community. Find Amy on Facebook.