As I write this, Carol and I are in
London, having just spent a lovely two week European cruise with my
sister and her family--my sister married an Englishman and has been
living in England for over 25 years. Carol and I savored the
opportunity to spend this extended time, and particularly
appreciated getting to know our twin niece and nephew better.
Watching the twins caused me to reflect a bit on the observation
that two children growing up in the same household, even when they
are twins, inevitably blossom with different personalities.
Sometimes—as in the case of my own two children, and in the case of
my sister and my brother—the differences are so profound one might
think they grew up not just in different families, but on different
Many of us know families where some of the children have followed in
their parents' path in terms of careers, values, and lifestyles, but
one or more of the others have marched to their own drummer, perhaps
even becoming the "black sheep" of the family.
My niece stands 5 feet 10 inches tall at age 11, while her brother
is only 5 feet 2 inches. He aspires to be an engineer (though I am
not sure that he quite knows what an engineer does yet), while she
is quite artistic and is moving more and more in that direction. He
speaks rather articulately and directly, while her speech is more
animated and a bit diffuse. He still has a bit of child-like
quality, while she is just a breath away from entering adolescence.
My nephew and my sister get along quite well, but my sister finds
herself often at odds with my niece—in part, because my niece
reminds my sister of herself at that age.
Likewise, my sister and brother (actually half-siblings—we did not
grow up together) are complete opposites. She is fun loving,
relatively easy going, generally progressive in thought on social
issues, and quite flexible. She also spends money quite easily. In
contrast, our brother is extremely conservative and rigid in his
lifestyle and viewpoint, has difficulty in social situations, and is
My own two children are likewise quite different--even their
memories and attitudes about their childhood are radically
different—one recalling a rather content childhood, and the other
still processing some old anger. So what is this phenomenon, and
what is a parent to do with it!
The debate over nature versus nurture is an old one. There are
certain characteristics that seem relatively fixed at birth—some are
rather clear, for example a tendency toward introversion or
extroversion, while others show up as a tendency toward one end of a
continuum or another. Although we as parents may strive valiantly to
treat our children equally, it is nearly impossible to do so. First,
each will have a different experience growing up—one is always the
eldest and others stand in different birth order (twins being the
Second, inevitably, one child will have characteristics that push
our buttons more than another—reminding ourselves of our experience
growing up or maybe of one parent or the other. For example, during
our travels my sister mentioned that she is constantly nagging our
niece about keeping her face clean. "Why?" I asked. My sister
thought a moment, and then as tears flowed she said "Because I had a
face patchy with acne as a kid." A quiet but profound discovery of
the link between her own past and her interaction with her daughter.
So, how do we deal with our children's differences? First, recognize
that they are each unique individuals, and part of their life
journey as children, particularly as adolescents, will be to
discover and claim their individuality. Celebrate their differences.
Find ways to affirm each of them for the unique talents and
strengths. And never, never compare them with one another—at least
Second, when you find certain behaviors or actions driving you
crazy, or find yourself in constant conflict, pause for a moment and
ask why you are making a particular rule, or enforcing particular
behavior. Is it for the child's good, or does your motivation really
lie in ancient hurts of your own? You may or may not still choose to
continue the rule or the behavior, but you will know why. And if, as
in my sister's case, it comes out of an earnest desire to spare your
child some hurt you experienced, tell the child. Share your honest
feelings, so that he or she will hear your "nagging" as an act of
love, and not as another note of parental control against which the
child may want to rebel.
In short, affirm them often for the uniqueness, for their
individuality. Love them for who they are not simply for what they
do. Share feelings with them. And listen, really listen to their
thoughts and feelings. The rewards will be priceless.
Kenneth Sprang, MA, JD, and Carol Sprang, MA, RNC, LCPC direct
Bethesda-Chevy Chase Counseling & Consulting in Bethesda, offering
Imago Relationship Therapy, relationship and executive coaching,
individual and couples coaching and counseling, and business
consulting services. (301)907-3377, ext. 93.