“I don't understand why one child is so cooperative and the other so difficult” This is a common refrain we hear from parents with more than one child. Many parents talk about how their two children are the opposite of each other and they wonder why.
There seems to be no pattern to it. It's not about being older or younger, or about being a boy or a girl. Listening to their stories has made us want to explore this phenomenon.
Why are siblings often opposite personalities- nature or environment?
Renowned parenting gurus Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish in their book “Siblings without Rivalry” offer an explanation for this. A chapter in their book is titled, “Siblings in roles-If He’s “This” Then I’ll be “That.” They say that sometimes children purposely shape themselves to be the opposite of their sibling because they want to assert their unique identity. For example, one child may be good at studies and receiving a lot of praise and attention from the family. The other child may subconsciously feel she can never match up to the standard of her sibling and hence decided it's not worth trying. She may even go out of her way to be irresponsible about her work to prove that “I am different. I am not her” (the responsible, studious one). Or she may try to excel in some other field like sports. We do not have conclusive evidence that this is the case. There could be other theories about why siblings are often starkly different from each other but whatever the reason there are some questions that all parents in this situation could ponder over.
Questions for parents to reflect on:
Are my actions making one child feel more loved and accepted than the other?
Am I reinforcing these labels rather than helping each child grow and reach their full potential?
What are the messages my children are getting about themselves and how does that affect their development?
Every parent wants to nurture each of their children equally but it is hard to respond in the same manner to all our children when some challenge us tremendously. I have experienced this firsthand. When one child questions everything, refuses to cooperate or is extremely demanding, it is only human to ask oneself “Why can’t she be as easy as the other one”. After a lot of soul searching the only answer that came to me was that each child is born with their own unique personality. To bring out the best of this personality, parents play a powerful role. A child will flourish when parents can understand and accept their traits, so they grow up to be confident.
Changing the lens with which we view each child:
I have interacted with parents who are able to take a balanced view of this situation. One parent told me that one of her children is a “feisty “child and she enjoys it. Another said, “This child has such a mind of her own its exhausting, but then I am confident that when he grows, he will not give in to peer pressure. I don't want to break his spirit.” Yet another parent said she worries about the child who is more cooperative because she wonders why that child is so eager to please. This opened my eyes to the fact that we often harm the “easy” child by saying, “You are such a good boy. You always listen.” And this child feels he must be good to retain his parents love. My cooperative daughter told us that we kept appreciating her for being so responsible, that she never felt free to just be a child and be irresponsible at times.
The one who is challenging constantly hears statements like, “You are so stubborn. Why can't you listen. Why can’t you be like your brother?” This child may feel rejected, have low self-esteem and negativity towards the other sibling. Every quality has two sides to it, and we could choose to see the positive. A stubborn child is strong minded and persistent. He will not give up easily in life. A child who questions is intelligent and curious. A child who is laid back, slow and does not take his responsibilities seriously may have the wonderful quality of not getting easily stressed.
Moving past the label
My “difficult” child is now turning eighteen. Over the years we have had plenty of conflict but through it all, as parents we tried to give her the message that it’s OK to be who she is- persistent, strong willed and demanding more out of life. The very qualities which made it challenging to parent her are just the ones we are now delighted about. We feel confident sending her out into the world knowing she has a mind of her own, will stand up for herself and not get swept up in pleasing others. She is comfortable in her own skin.
The lesson I have learnt- Encourage your “easy” child to sometimes be difficult and win cooperation from your “difficult” one without squashing her spirit.
Author: Kesang Menezes is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.