Building Moral Intelligence
Much as we try to make our kids feel equally loved, they accuse us of showing “favoritism.” I recently received the following email from a twelve-year old boy named Jordan. His message shows the damage of parental favoritism:
I know my dad loves me and wants me to do really well in life, but he’s making me -feel so bad about myself. All he does is compare me to my brother and tell me I should try to be more like him. I know I can never be like him, but the worst thing is I’m starting to hate my brother. I don’t mean to. I just do. Can you help me?
His message hurts, doesn’t it? We don’t mean to play favorites and deliberately set out to make one kid feel less loved. But if we’re not careful, our subtle day-to-day behaviors can set up deadly feelings of jealousy amongst siblings. And those feelings can take from family harmony as well as last a lifetime.
Of course, treating kids equally is plain unrealistic: they come packaged with different temperaments, interests, and needs. So don’t drive yourself too crazy trying to always make things always fair. The real trick is to minimize conditions that break down sibling relationships and cause long-lasting resentment. Bottom line: while some rivalry is unavoidable, parents can discourage sibling disharmony by giving careful attention to how their household atmosphere is structured. Here are seven ideas to guide you in minimizing jealousy and disharmony amongst siblings:
- Refrain from comparing behaviors. Never compare or praise one kid’s behavior in contrast to a sibling: it can create long-lasting strains. “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” “Why aren’t you organized like your brother?” All too easily, kids can interpret such comparisons as: “You think he’s better than me” or “You love him more.” It unfairly puts pressure on the sibling you praised and devalues your other child.
- Listen openly to all sides. Listening fairly your kids is not only a powerful way to convey that you respect each child’s thoughts and want to hear all sides: “Thanks for sharing. Now I want to hear your brother’s side.” The key is to build a fair relationship with each sibling so that he or she knows not only that you value each opinion and you’re an unbiased listener.
- Never compare schoolwork. Kids should compare their schoolwork, test scores, and report cards only to their own previous work—never to the work of their siblings or friends. Instead of stimulating a child to work harder, comparisons are more likely to fuel resentment.
- Avoid using negative labels. Family nicknames like Shorty, Clumsy, or Klutz can cause unfair family ribbings and fuel sibling resentment. “Don’t worry, he’s just the family klutz”-as well as become daily reminders of incompetence. These kinds of labels often stick and become difficult to erase, not only within but also outside your family as well.
- Nurture a unique strength for each sibling. All kids deserve to hear from parents what makes them unique. Knowledge of that talent nurtures their self-esteem as well as setting them apart from their siblings. Ideally, you should nurture a different strength for each sibling based on natural temperament and interests. Once you identify the talent, find opportunities to cultivate and validate it so each child can be acknowledged for their strength.
- Find special alone time with each child. One way to let each child feel treasured is by spending alone just with each parent. Capitalize on those individual moments as they arise: “Your brother’s asleep. Let’s just you and I go read books together.” Or make a date with each sibling to have special time just with you then mark it on the calendar. How frequently you meet is based on what’s realistic for your schedule: thirty minutes weekly, ten minutes daily, an hour every other week. Arrange for another adult to watch other siblings or choose a time when they’re gone. “Together” occasions could be: a movie, a walk, lunching at a favorite restaurant, kite flying, an ice cream outing, or just time alone. Then enjoy each other without siblings around.
- Reinforce cooperative behavior. Don’t overlook one of the simplest ways to boost sibling harmony: catch them supporting each other. The moments may be few and far between, but when they do help, share, cooperate, and work well together, tell them you appreciate their efforts. They’re more likely to repeat the behaviors because they know that’s what you want them to do.
BEHAVIOR TIP: Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to always make things fair in your house. Life just isn’t. Instead, teach kids the skills that promote harmony so they’re more likely to cooperate.
PARENT QUIZ: ARE YOU FUELING SIBLING JEALOUSY?
Here are a few questions to help you assess how well you’re doing in making all your kids feel equally treasured. Mark any potential problem areas, then make a pledge to improve them. A great question to ponder is: “If someone asked your child if you treat your kids fairly, how would he or she respond?”
____ Does each kid feel like your favorite?
____ Do you avoid comparing your kids in front of others?
____ Do you provide opportunities for each child to nurture her special talents?
____ Do you openly listen to each child concerns?
____ Do your eyes light up with the same intensity when you see each of your kids?
____ Do you schedule equal one-on-one time with each child?
____ Do you avoid taking sides whenever there’s a conflict between your kids?
____ Do you pay equal attention to each child’s hobbies, friends, school, and interests?
____ Do you set rules and expectations for each child that your other kids consider fair?
____ Do you distribute chores, rewards, and opportunities fairly among your kids?
Think about your kids’ relationships with one another. Which child feels more resentful or left out? What might be fueling that resentment? What situations seem to escalate rivalry? Make a list of possible causes.
Pretend you really are in the shoes of the child who feels jealous. How would you feel if you were your kid? How would you act? What will you do to change your relationship with this child so he feels just as special in your eyes?
Talk your kids one-on-one and find out what they enjoy most and least about each sibling. It might help you assess what’s going on between them. Ask if they have any suggestions that might improve their relationship.
What is one behavior you could change in yourself that might improve your kids’ relationship? Write a plan to make that change happen.
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