Before I had children, I never really worried about whether I would love one child more than the other. I always knew that there would be enough love to go around. What I had not expected, however, was the extent to which I would love my children so differently. I figured that a mother’s love was a mother’s love and that was that. Oh, how wrong I was. In fact, my mama love for each of them is so different that there should be a different word for the love I feel for each of them.

As a result of the vastly different love I have for my boys, I will admit that I treat them differently. Very differently. My eldest is given many more social opportunities, has been exposed to organized sports earlier, and has had significantly more one-on-one parenting time. But I am stricter with him and have higher expectations of him. Conversely, my youngest reaps the benefits of more relaxed parenting techniques, is showered with more affection, and is often placated in order to keep the peace. But he has few friends of his own and he gets much less one-on-one attention.

Not all of this is necessarily a bad thing, nor is it altogether avoidable. There are obvious reasons why older siblings tend to be perfectionists, whereas younger siblings tend to be more easy-going. Firstborns model behavior after their parents, since they don’t have an older sibling, and they are showered with praise in their early years, which can boost confidence. Younger siblings are often able to get away with more since their parents aren’t nervous, new parents anymore, and they tend to shoulder less responsibility than firstborns.

None of this is unique to my family, nor is it particularly troublesome. What does give me cause for concern, however, is the potential impact that my different loves might have on the way I treat my children and, consequently, the impact that these different interactions and different relationships will have on our entire family.

According to a new study published in the journal Child Development last month, research shows that the entire household dynamic is disturbed when parents treat one child differently than another. In the study, researchers followed 400 families in Canada with children between the ages of two and five over four years and found that, overall, when children in the same household were treated differently, all children in the family – not just negatively treated children – showed more attention and emotional problems at the end of the four-year study than when the study began.

Certainly, there are varying degrees to which children might be treated differently, which affects the impact that differential treatment has on the family. Constantly praising one child and criticizing another is a more obvious form of differential treatment, but what about more subtle alterations in treatment and expectations? What happens when one child is blamed for misbehavior just a little bit more than the other, for instance? Or, what about, when one child is expected to be more flexible because he or she is generally more relaxed than another child? Do even slight differences in treatment affect children? And, if so, how?

Let’s be honest, there are circumstances beyond our control that impact how we treat our children and how we feel about them. Moreover, each child is so unique that it would be nearly impossible not to have a different relationship with each child. With my own children, circumstances and individual personalities have had a significant impact on my relationships and interactions with each of them right from the start. Post-partum depression took a serious toll on my early relationship with my firstborn. A long and painful delivery, feeding challenges, and sleep battles all impacted my feelings toward him and our interactions with each other. Unlike me, he is high energy, independent, and extremely outgoing, often leaving me confused and uncertain about how to deal with his personality. Like me, however, he is highly sensitive and emotional, which allows me to empathize with him to an unparalleled degree. Moreover, as my first child, he is what made me a mom and each of his first experiences were also my first experiences. For that, we will always share an unmatched connection.

Conversely, my younger son was a miracle baby of sorts, the child I had thought I might never have. Childbirth was fast and relatively painless (thanks to a highly-effective epidural) and he was an excellent sleeper, all of which made him easy to love right from the start, and unlike after the birth of my firstborn, the bond with my youngest son was not clouded with hormonal imbalances and mental instability. He is snuggly, cuddly, and incredibly affectionate, which begets more affection in return. He is more dependent on me and, as a result, he gets more of my attention. But, as a second child, many of his milestones have been glossed over and he is often thrust into his older brother’s world, instead of living in his own.

All of these circumstances, situations, and personality traits impact my relationship with each of my children and, in turn, affect the way that I interact with them. Likewise, different ages, personalities, and needs mean that sometimes different treatment is not only justified, but necessary. One child may respond well to strong discipline, whereas another child may react better to positive reinforcement. One child might be self-motivated by challenges, whereas another child may need constant praise and encouragement.

But does different treatment necessarily mean better or worse treatment? Do different interactions mean that one child is a favorite? And, god forbid, does different love inherently mean better love?

According to the lead researcher of the Canadian study, as long as children understand the reasons for the differential treatment, variances don’t necessarily create a negative environment. In other words, it matters less whether the treatment is different, and more whether children understand that the treatment is fair.

So I have made a personal vow to treat my children fairly, if not equally. To explain any differences and to avoid assumptions and labels. To not just tell them I love them, but show them that I love them fiercely, boldly, unconditionally.

But I know that there will be times when I will fall short. There will be times when I won’t be able to protect my children, times when they will feel mistreated, misjudged, or inferior. There will be times when one of them will – for just a brief moment – doubt his inherent worth. And all I can do is pray, pray, pray that, even at these lowest moments, they will know that different does not mean better or worse, different does not mean more or less. Different means unique, special, and personal. Different means one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, and exceptional. Different means amazing, remarkable, and treasured.

Like the mama in Barbara M. Joosse’s book “I Love You the Purplest,” who loves one son the reddest and her other son the bluest, I, too, love my children differently.

I love my oldest the bravest,
with the intensity of a summer thunderstorm
and the brilliance of a blazing sunset.
I love him like a rumbling waterfall,
like a sleeping bear in her cave,
like long shadows at twilight,
like lanky sunflowers leaning toward the sun.

I love my youngest son the gentlest,
with the serenity of a placid deep lake
and the luminosity of a twinkling moon.
I love him like the dawn of first morning’s light,
like an eagle soaring with wings spread wide,
like footsteps in wet sand,
like wildflowers glittered across a country meadow.

Yes, I love my children differently. Very differently. As different as all the colors of a rainbow.

But as vast as the sky that holds it.



How do you love differently?

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  1. Terrific subject, Christie. I was the firstborn of 6 girls, and though we are all very different, our mother somehow managed to let us know we were all loved. She never showed favoritism even though she had her favorites. And then I have a friend who, like you, has 2 kids. She’s older so this is from looking back. Her firstborn, a boy, was easy to raise never gave her a bit of trouble. The second was a girl and never gave her a moment’s rest. My friend told me that she parented her second exactly the same as the first figuring she had done something right, since he was so easy. She says that was her mistake. I won’t go into the long story and the girl is finding her way in the world. But the kids were so different she believes parenting is exceedingly difficult for that reason. You have to adapt to each child. That study you cite is interesting. It contradicts her experience. But she’s just one of many millions of parents. Fascinating topic!

    • Christie

      Wow! 6 girls! That makes my struggles with two boys seems so trivial 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts. And yes, parenting is exceedingly difficult. I had no idea!

  2. I truly believe that the most important thing siblings have to offer one another is experience with their first community. Every lesson that needs to be learned about how to interact with others, work together, share, communicate, love, laugh, etc, is first learned with a sibling. To that end, the most valuable lesson they learn in this context is that everything in life is not “fair and equal” and that does not mean favoritism.

    Recently my 9 year old told me (through tears after receiving a consequence for his attitude) that I liked his younger brother better. When I asked him what made him feel that way he told me, “You always take my iTouch away when I’m in trouble and you never take his.” So I asked him how often he saw his little brother play with his iTouch. He responded, “Only once or twice a month.” “Exactly,” I responded. I then went on to tell him that consequences were designed to hurt- that’s what helps deter us from repeating the wrong behavior. Taking his iTouch away is painful because it’s his favorite thing. Taking his brother’s iTouch would have little to no impact on him because it’s of little value to him. Their punishments are not the same, but they are appropriate for the person who made the error. It may not seem “equal or fair” but it is.
    So different love works the same way. Different needs, different love languages and different values require different reactions.
    Just my thoughts;)

    • Christie

      All great thoughts, Vicky. Thanks for sharing them. I really like your explanation to your son about the reasons for the different punishments. It totally makes sense and I’m sure that your son was able to appreciate it more with the explanation. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Wow, Christie! You’ve outdone yourself here! Our history with our children is soooo similar! I could have written this wonderful post (and wish I had) as this is an issue in our family. We’re only now noticing some of the repercussions of treating one child (a little?) differently and the intense feelings our daughters share. I’m grateful for your treatment of this issue and the helpful information you provided. Hugs to you!

    • Christie

      Thanks, Mary. Hugs to you too. When are we getting together for that coffee?

  4. Thank you. I have an almost 43 year old daughter…first born…who still feels we love her little brother who is 41 much better. She has always had a chip on her shoulder and is insecure in many ways and an overachiever…suma cum laude from Salem College. I have been praying and searching my heart and mind about this and today I found this on Google. Your article brought rears to my eyes…have been feeling so bad about this. Thank you….thank you.

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