Here's Why Parenting Kids Differently Actually Works

Studies be damned

“It’s not fair that Georgia gets to stay home!” shouts my six-year-old daughter, Penny.

I respond by assuring her that what is fair isn’t always what is right, which earns me some epic first-grader side eye and an loud foot stomp in retaliation.

The pre-parent version of myself would have agreed with my eldest child, but the mother-of-three version knows that treating my kids differently doesn’t mean that I don’t love them the same.

My middle daughter, Georgia, has recently started Kindergarten, and the full days away from home have proven to be exhausting for her. We have eased into this new routine slowly, determining that some days will be home days - not because she’s sick, but because she needs the time to decompress from the challenge of such a big life change.

My eldest daughter is a veteran school-kid. She has a solid group of friends in her class, is extremely energetic, and needs the schedule and routine of daily school. Naturally, my six-year-old would prefer to stay in her warm house on the days that her younger sister does, but we know that to allow her to stay home would be doing her a disservice. Not just because in first grade she’s actually learning things, but because her particular personality requires that she attend school unless she’s sick or truly exhausted.

It’s been a challenge at times, but all three of my children have learned that I will sometimes parent them differently, looking at their individual needs instead of evaluating them as a collective brood. Thankfully, as our conversations have circled around this concept they’ve grown to understand and appreciate this perspective.

For me, parenting my kids differently means evaluating where my children are at with their needs. For example, my oldest daughter, who has ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), is involved in extracurriculars and extra activities during the school year. We don’t enroll our younger children in activities yet, because we know that the pressure on them would be too much. However, it suits Penny best to be busy and active, and she enjoys her activities.

For my middle daughter Georgia, instead of activities she gets some more calming time at home, and occasionally gets to go on day trips with myself or my husband. Both kids get one-on-one time with us, but it looks a bit different for each of them.

There are plenty of other ways that I treat my kids differently, from having visual cues and charts for one, to reading books more often with the other.  I study my kids’ budding personalities and make note of their differing needs. But the differences do not change that I love each of my children the same.

A 2013 Canadian study revealed that treating your kids differently negatively impacts your family dynamic. The longitudinal study involved 400 Canadian families, and looked at the ways that parents interact with their children. Some of the ways that parents treated their children differently included giving more positive attention to one child, setting different expectations for various children, or offering more warmth and affection to certain kids. The impact in the home was that the mood was divisive, which is a fairly obvious outcome from this type of preferential treatment.

It would appear that this family study and my own home dynamic don’t agree on what it means to raise kids differently. In my home we still care for, nurture, and offer attention to each of our kids in equal amounts. In moments when one child is ill, or hurting, the attention and time spent on one might shift, but overall, each of my children is offered equal support and love from both of their parents.

What the study highlights is that not every parent was aware of this preferential treatment, and that fact was eye-opening. It made me realize that, as a parent, I must allow myself to reflect and evaluate how my kids are feeling about our family dynamic. If they feel that it is divisive, perhaps there are some changes that need to be made.

For now, my kids are content and happy with the way things are working within our home. Treating them differently, in my home, has meant that they each get what they need.


Brianna Bell is a writer and journalist based out of Guelph, Ontario. She has written for many online and print publications, including Scary Mommy, The Penny Hoarder, and The Globe & Mail. 

Brianna's budget-savvy ways has attracted media attention, and led to newspaper coverage in The Globe & Mail and The Guelph Mercury. In April 2016 Brianna will be featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less, alongside co-writer Brooke Burke. You can find Brianna's website at Brianna Bell Writes.