Your Children Come From Different Planets
By K. Sprang
As I write this, Carol and I are in London,
having just spent a lovely two week European
cruise with my sister and her familymy
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 on the
observation that two children growing up in
the same household, even when they are twins,
inevitably blossom with different personalities.
Sometimesas in the case of my own two
children, and in the case of my sister and my
brotherthe differences are so profound
one might think they grew up not just in different
families, but on different planets.
Many of us know families where some of the children
have followed in their parents' footsteps 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 niecein 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 easygoing, generally
progressive in thought, and quite flexible.
She also spends money quite easily. In contrast,
our brother is extremely conservative in his
lifestyle and viewpoints, has difficulty in
social situations, and is extraordinarily frugal.
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 birthsome
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
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
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 not aloud.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org.