Family life

Do you love one child more than the other?

It can be difficult for parents to find the right words when one child believes you love her sibling more.

1AnnaAvery

Avery (left) and Anna. Photo: Tracy Chappell

It was a rough morning. We were at my parents’ house, getting ready for a big family party. My kids had been staying with them for the week, and I’d just arrived the night before, swooping in with hugs and kisses, but also busy with party prep. And as we were getting ready to go, Anna decided she didn’t like any of the dresses I’d brought for her.

There was crying and yelling and throwing of dresses around the room, which was in a bit of disarray with extra mattresses and suitcases from all of us who had descended on my parents’ house for the festivities. Anna was in a state. I just wanted to get out the door to help decorate at the restaurant, but her issues weren’t going to be that easily solved. I yelled. She cried more. My family suggested I stay and do what I needed to do, and meet them there.

Read more: 6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them!>

I sat down beside her on the bed as she sobbed, and took some deep breaths myself. I should have done this first—because, you know, it’s never just about the dress—but I was frustrated and wanted to help with the party and just needed this part to be easy. Why couldn’t it just be easy? “What’s up?” I asked her quietly.

“There’s too much stuff in this room,” she cried, leaning into me and kicking at some pillows on the floor. I put my arm around her, desperately searching for a place of empathy in my heart, instead of anger. “And no one’s giving me any privacy!” As if on cue, my younger daughter, Avery, bounced into the room asking if she could go on ahead with her cousins to the party. I told her she could, gave her a quick kiss, and she was off.

Then it came: “Mommy, sometimes I think you love Avery more than you love me.” A new round of sobs burst from Anna as this dagger plunged into my heart. My emotions were already running so high and I pressed my lips together, trying not to cry. I knew there were a handful of perfect things to say in this moment, but I couldn’t find any words, I was so torn up.

Read more: Is it natural for parents to have a favourite child?>

One evening last year, Anna and I were reading the book Clementine together. In it, one of the characters says something like “My mom says that every family has an easy kid and a hard kid.” Anna stopped at this sentence and said, “Is that true?” Gulp. Luckily, at that time, my husband was having an uncharacteristically tough time putting Avery to bed, so I said, “Well, right now you’re the easy one and Avery is the hard one!” and she laughed and we went back to reading. But the truth is, Anna has been more of a challenge, behaviourally, than Avery. Anna has big emotions, and a my-way-or-the-highway mentality, and is quick to get angry and lash out. Avery has a very different personality—she is shy and, while she can be very stubborn, too, she is more of a pleaser and goes with the flow more often than not. She’s often devastated if she gets in trouble, while Anna is indignant.

Read more: Discipline: When siblings need different approaches>

I love them both so fully. To me, they are two sides of a precious, shiny coin. And both personalities present different challenges in terms of parenting: Anna is a born leader who needs to learn to listen and be respectful of those around her; Avery is a sensitive soul who’ll need to learn to speak up for herself instead of following the crowd. Both of them are truly amazing and have incredible gifts to offer the world, which I’ve chronicled in this blog for years, and certainly, I love them for different reasons, but equally.

But it was easy for me to understand how Anna might not see that. I’ve actually been surprised to never hear her utter these words before. To a child, how to gauge a parent’s love can probably be quite practical: While Anna knows she is loved, she also sees that she gets more reprimands than her sister and spends a lot more time in time-out, so we must love Avery more. The night before this incident, we were trying to sort out sleeping arrangements for all the extra people and Avery figured something out that Anna would not agree to. So Avery re-arranged things that had Anna sleeping where she wanted and Avery sleeping on the floor (where Anna did not want to be). “I don’t mind,” Avery said. I think Anna saw how flexible Avery was willing to be, and recognized that that’s not something that comes so easily to her. It was probably sitting with her as everyone flitted off to the party all dressed and brushed without a fuss.

Of course, I don’t want Anna to feel this way and I’ve actually worked hard to try not to foster these feelings, aware of how easily they could arise based on our family dynamics. I don’t compare them or say, “Look at how easily your sister got ready,” but I do feel it’s important to acknowledge good behaviour, and I do it for both of them—the whole “catch them being good.” I think that’s fair. But I can also see how it would lead to this moment.

Read more: How to build your child’s self-esteem>

I just echoed her statement: “You think I love Avery more than you.” She had calmed down now and quietly said, “Sometimes.” I knew she wouldn’t be convinced by my assurance that I loved them both the same, so I took her face in my hands and said to her what was in my heart: “I could never, ever love anyone more than I love you. That’s the truth.”

To my surprise, her beautiful freckled face, all red and damp, turned up to me, and she smiled. Then she clung to me and told me she loved me, too. Then, even more surprisingly, she said, “Can you make me some toast?”

Yep. She was hungry. This whole thing could have been avoided by some bread and butter. Live and learn.

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her @T_Chappell.