How to Thrive Despite Disappointing (Some of) Your Kids

Hint: Don’t pretend that life is fair

My mother used to keep a running tab of how much she spent on Christmas gifts for me and my older brother. She made those totals fall within a fraction of a percent, adding token stocking stuffers to achieve her aim. I doubt we kids would’ve noticed a differential: Thank God I got this Simpsons note pad worth $3.99 to account for the greater price of his video game. Still, that uniformity was important to our mom. Everything I did, two years after my brother, mirrored what he had done. If he went to debate camp, you can be sure that I went to writing camp. While all this sameness seemed fair, it must have been exhausting as the parent.

My three children experience a rotating sequence of every human emotion over the course of a day. At any given time, I have one kid who is overjoyed. This young person has secured victory in the What Movie Should We Watch battle. During this same interval, I have one child who is mortified. Awash in disdain for all things ever, this one is hunched over, eyes half closed, lamenting. The third child in this scenario? Needs something, like help finding a missing shoe rightthisverysecond. One fist-pumping kid, one moaning kid, one squawking kid.

Life as the parent of siblings is either a constant affirmation or a chronic failure. I wish my three would cooperate and align themselves so that I could at least get more twofers. The older they get, the more their needs and interests diverge. When they were toddlers and preschoolers, I could hit a local playground for 45 minutes and then read a few picture books on the sofa and –whoo — they were all tuckered out and happy. That doesn’t happen often now that they’re tweens and teens. I’ve got one who needs some reassurance about an upcoming math test, one who wants me to watch this hilarious video on YouTube, and one who’s So Bored. I’m chronically 1/3 attentive, 2/3 dud.

How can we accept all this juggling and stay sane? Here are some reminders to embrace the reality that you can’t make everybody happy all the time.

Fairness is overrated. The goal isn’t to be “fair”. Life isn’t fair. Classroom and sports experiences will not always go a child’s way. Not everybody’s teeth are crooked; not everybody needs glasses. Teaching kids to expect fairness in their lives is a route to disappointment. Each of your children has a right to feel valued, respected and loved. Beyond that, if one kid is invited to an amusement park by a friend’s family, the others shouldn’t expect you to carve out a day of fun for them. If one sister happens to end up on the world’s most rad softball team full of future All-Stars, the other shouldn’t demand moral outrage from you that her team is stocked with beginners. The child on the struggling team has more opportunities to develop by teaching others and practicing patience. You don’t have to throw out a flippant “Suck it up, buttercup,” but turn it into a positive: we make the best of what we’ve got.

You’ve been there and survived, so your kids will too. When children invoke “That’s not fair!” in response to a decision (that’s when, not if), point out ways you’ve dealt with a lack of fairness in your own life. Sharing “lessons learned” with your kids can help them envision healthy responses and feel like you’re on their side. Consider various examples, from the workplace to consumer experiences. Point out that Uncle Chris is your sibling, and he got to drive a Pontiac Firebird when he got his driver’s license, while you were stuck sharing the family’s station wagon.

Take your 15-year-old out for milkshakes. Since my kids do have to share most things, from their parents’ attention to the second row in the minivan, it’s nice for them to count on some time when they don’t have to share. Try adding occasional “dates” with each child to your schedule. My son still gets a kick out of shooting hoops and munching fast food with me, and my oldest daughter likes to take in the occasional movie or live performance with only Mom. Even a teenager will often enjoy the novelty of having your undivided attention — especially if a bit of spoiling is added in.

Compromise and cooperation really do benefit everyone. Isn’t this why many parents want to give their kids a sibling? Consider the value in sometimes taking a back seat so that another person is happy. That may be a route to genuine empathy, better communication, and generosity. It also may foster the ability to delay gratification. This afternoon is all about Little Sister’s gymnastics meet and frankly, not much attention is being paid to Big Brother. That brother will have his own time to shine — but today, he has to deal with waiting. In our “me-first” and fast-paced culture, that’s not a bad lesson to learn.

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