Parenting is not about being fair

In a perfect world I would treat all my kids the same ...
In a perfect world I would treat all my kids the same ... Photo: Getty

I treat all my three kids exactly the same. Or at least, I do, in some alternate universe of Ideal Family, in which my kids are perfect, and I’m totally perfect too.

The problem I have with parenting advice is that it advocates a One Size Fits All approach that rarely works. Because in parenting, one size rarely even fits most. Parenting is not a series of techniques; it’s a unique relationship between two unique people.

Since the days my kids were born, they have needed different things from me. My son always required a lot of structure and sleep. He would become agitated if there were sudden changes of plans, or if I was forced to change his nap times. There was no point trying to ‘get him used to it’, as people would self-righteously advise me; he never got used to it, and it always caused distress. I had to work my life around his needs, because that’s what he required to feel secure. And it paid off, because at 14 he is thriving (and still needs a lot of routine and sleep).

My elder daughter, on the other hand, has always been flexible. From very early on I would have to wake her from her naps, and unlike her brother, she would wake smiling and cheerful. She was completely adaptable, and willing to please. I’ve had to work with her to be more assertive about her own needs, which I would never have to do with her brother or baby sister.

As for discipline, well, my big girl responds to little more than a firm word. She always has. There is nothing I need to do to discipline her; she is one of those children who make it feel easy to be a mother. My other kids, however, are the antidote to that. My son was always very tricky to manage, and none of the traditional punishments ever worked. Getting angry would make him dig his heels in, time out would see him barricade himself in his room for hours (the child never caved, ever), and reasoned conversations were simply impossible when he was in one of his moods. Even star charts turned out to be an utter disaster – he would hound me relentlessly for stars until I wanted to throw the whole bloody chart at his head.

And my youngest, on the other hand, needs the whole kit and kaboo – punishments, rewards, time out, threats. At six she is feisty and stubborn, does a brilliant line in fake tears, and has left me reaching for every possible tactic that parents throughout the ages have ever used. But when employed, they work. Time out is helpful, bribery works a treat, and stars are a tremendous incentive, even without the chart. She might think it’s NOT FAIIIR that she gets put in her room when neither of her siblings do, but her sister doesn’t need it, and her brother is in his man cave anyway.

What’s more, my kids get away with very different things. My son is a very skinny teen, and needs more than his sisters. He’ll actually be hungry two hours after dinner, and so I’ll make him a sandwich, which my girls will then want because it’s there. And all their cries of ‘NOT FAIIIR’ will fall on deaf ears, because I’m responding to needs here, not encouraging overweight.

My son also does far more chores than his younger sister, because she helps with the six year old much more. Recently he declared that he would rather scrape the dead skin off my feet than read a book to the little one, so I got the twelve year old to do it (read the book that is, not give me a pedi) and he unpacked the shopping.

My daughter stopped napping around the same time as her brother, even though he was two years older. She just needed less sleep. No point him complaining, because that’s the way it rolled. And the little one watches more TV than either of her siblings, because I’m now a working mum, and I use it as a babysitter. Again, there’s no point in the others yelling “It’s NOT FAIIIR!”, or I’ll make them scrape the dead skin off my feet, and we’ll see how unfair that is.

You can’t treat different people exactly the same. They have different personalities, different needs, and different places in the family. You can’t even love them the same, because each love relationship is different. But you can be the best mother you can be to each and every one.

Or just shove them in front of the TV. That sometimes works too.