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Are You a Different Parent to Each Child?

How Birth Order, Special Needs, and Gender Influence Parenting

By Sherri Gordon at

Are You a Different Parent to Each Child?

If you're like most parents, you probably place a pretty high premium on equality in your family. Theoretically, your goal is to treat everyone the same—or at least make things fair. But is that really even possible? Honestly, probably not.

Think about it. In life, you don't treat every person you know exactly the same. Everyone is unique with different temperaments, personalities, and needs. So why would you place such an unrealistic expectation on yourself when it comes to your kids?

Like it or not, even if you try to be exactly the same parent with each kid, research shows that most parents end up parenting their kids differently—even if they try to be consistent, fair, and make everything equal.1 And, that's not always a bad thing, especially if your parenting style focuses on giving each child what they need to be successful.

But what about the times when parenting is influenced by uncontrolled circumstances like birth order, special needs, and gender? In those cases, parents need to be particularly cognizant of the pitfalls that can happen in each of these scenarios.

While parenting kids differently is inevitable, it's important to navigate each scenario with as much awareness and intentionality as possible.

The Impact of Birth Order

Some differences in parenting occur naturally based on the kids' birth orders. For instance, firstborn children tend to be the guinea pigs for new parents.

These budding parents are likely to be enthusiastic, nervous, and slightly overprotective. After all, they are learning how to parent for the first time through their firstborn and they don't want to make any mistakes.

They also tend to have a lot more free time. So, they might spend more time reading to the firstborn and doting on them. Every first is documented from the first smile to the first step to the first word.

They schedule playdates, attend playgroups, and sign their child up for enrichment classes. And, all the attention creates wonderful dividends for the firstborn. For instance, kids born first tend to be successful in school, natural-born leaders, and extremely responsible.

As a parent, it's important to be aware of these tendencies to parent kids differently based on birth order and to adjust accordingly. For instance, you may have higher expectations for your oldest and give them more responsibility while the youngest may not have any responsibilities.

In these cases, you need to be careful about these differences. You don't want your firstborn to think they have to be perfect and you don't want your youngest to grow up to be irresponsible. So, it's important to keep those things in mind when parenting your kids and try not to fall into those predictable birth order parenting traps.

The Impact of Special Needs Kids

When families have a special needs child, there will be natural, built-in inequities, and that is to be expected.

Regardless of whether your child has mental, physical, or emotional disabilities, it is only natural that they are going to require more time and energy than your other kids. To keep the other children from harboring resentment though, use this experience to teach them how to be more empathetic.

But, it is equally important that you still carve out time for the other kids and don't let the demands of your special needs child consume every ounce of your energy. It's also important to be sure that you insist on healthy boundaries between your special needs child and their siblings.

For example, don't allow your special needs child to do whatever they want with no consequences. Allowing inappropriate actions to go unchecked not only hurts your other children, but is a disservice to your special needs kid. It also is a sure-fire way to build anger and resentment in your other kids.

The Impact of Gender

When it comes to parenting boys and girls, it can be challenging not to put them in stereotypical roles—even inadvertently. For instance, parents in large families might assign their boys chores like mowing the lawn and emptying the garbage while asking their girls to load and unload the dishwasher and fold laundry.

But a better alternative is to have the kids take turns doing different chores. As long as the chores are age-appropriate, there is no reason why your daughter cannot help with yard work and your son fold the laundry.

As the kids get older, you might consider having them sign up for chores each week, especially if you have a large family. Then, they can choose which chores they prefer. As long as everything gets done, it doesn't matter who is doing what.

Another way gender influences parenting is the way in which we expect boys and girls to behave. In other words, some parents find it difficult to allow their sons to cry, but are comfortable when their daughters shed a few tears.

This can create a real problem if you have a sensitive son and it makes you or your partner uncomfortable if he shows emotion. The other kids might pick up on this and call him a wimp. When this happens, the kids feel justified in teasing their sibling. Be very careful not to fall into stereotypical parenting when it comes to gender. Parent your kids according to their needs not according to male and female stereotypes.

A Word From Verywell

Parenting is never easy. It also is ever-changing. And no matter how you choose to parent your kids, finding a style that works for you is an evolving process that changes every time you add a new child to the mix.

Take some some to think about how you are parenting your kids:

  • Is the discipline similar?

  • Are the rules age-appropriate?

  • Are you falling into any pitfalls?

There are a lot of things you cannot change like birth order, gender, and special needs. But, you can do your best to create an environment where everyone feels loved, valued, and respected.

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