Is mom of twins playing favorites?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 10, 2011 06:00 AM

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I have 6-year-old boy/girl twins. My son is very jealous of his sister, which makes him act very cruelly towards her. He tries to stop her from doing what she likes by taking things from her and making her cry. He is lazy and bored all the time, and now he is beginning to tell me lies. He seems angry and selfish and just doesn't care or have respect for his sister or me. What can I do to make him care and respect us? I am afraid of what he will be like as a teenager and adult if this does not stop.

Single mom

Dear Single Mom,

There's something about your email that makes me wonder if maybe he has reason to be jealous of his sister... or angry at you. He might be jealous of her if he perceives that she gets more or your attention than he does. He might be angry with you if he thinks you love her more...

To describe a 6-year-old as lazy and bored "all the time".....well, honestly, it's hard for me to imagine that as a description of a any 6-year-old. So here's what I'm wondering: Without realizing it, do you play favorites? Is it possible you prefer the way your daughter plays? Is it possible you are more comfortable with her interactions than with your son's? If I'm hitting a raw nerve, then it's also possible that he engages in these behaviors because he's trying to get your attention.

My suggestion is that you make a point to have time alone with each child, every day, even if it's just 5 minutes. Label it as "Mom & Jane's time" and "Mom & Joe's time." Make it clear this is not a time when the cell phone or the computer or ....THE TWIN can interrupt. Let each child choose what the activity will be: do they want to cuddle and read a book, play a board game, or walk around the block? I'm not talking about anything fancy here, it's just a way for each child to have undivided attention from mom. Siblings and especially twins can feel they have to compete for mom's attention. In a single-parent family, that need for your attention can be exacerbated. I'm guessing if he sees he has equal access to you, his need to be "cruel" to his sister and/or to you will disappear.

I also urge you not to label his behaviors toward his sister as mean or cruel; that can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Instead, when you see the behaviors, quickly intervene and separate. Tell him, "You can't play if you pull/hit/shout." Set a clear limit with a clear consequence. Once you separate them, ask him, "Do you want to try to play without pulling/hitting/shouting? When you're ready to play nicely, you can try again." That way, he knows in no uncertain terms what behaviors are OK and what ones are not.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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13 comments so far...
  1. I see this advice frequently, to spend alone time with each child. From a practical standpoint though, where's the other child while Mom is holed up with Jane? If Joe's already angry then leaving him alone, even for 5 minutes, seems counterproductive. Maybe another alternative would be for each parent to spend a couple of hours on Saturday with each child. Week 1, Mom gets Joe and Dad gets Jane. Reverse it on Week 2. Another idea would be that now that they are 6 it's perfectly normal for them to develop outside friendships. They needn't be each other's only companion, and they needn't stick together 24/7. Separate play dates could be arranged. You could talk to their school about putting them in different classrooms as well. They each deserve to form their own friendships and personalities.

    Posted by JBar March 10, 11 07:34 AM
  1. Seems like you are playing favorites... Calling him lazy at 6 and all the time... I'm guessing he's right and clearly you would rather be with your little girl then your boy.

    Posted by Shame on you March 10, 11 10:57 AM
  1. JBar I had the same thought but then I remembered that when I was a child, for a while my mother used to let one of us per night stay up a little later (15 - 30 minutes) after the others went to bed and we could do whatever we wanted with her. There were five of us, and my dad worked lots of overtime so she was often at home flying solo with all of us and rarely had the opportunity for 1:1 time with us. I really enjoyed that time and still remember it - we would make pot holders on one of those little plastic looms together. I think with my brothers, they would build legos or tinkertoys. The only thing that wasn't an option was TV. So maybe that's a way that she can work in 1:1 time during the week. Another thought is that at this age, the kids wouldn't be bathing together so while one is busy in the bath or shower, mom could use that time to spend with the other one.

    Posted by Jen March 10, 11 11:02 AM
  1. And she's a single mom. Spending solo time with each kid may not be ideal.

    Posted by Sarah B March 10, 11 11:42 AM
  1. I'm also thinking that if it has got to this stage, where the little boy is angry and hostile, that 5 minutes is just not enough. Nice idea, but you can't undo the damage of favoritism with 5 minutes a night.

    I completely agree, though, with Barbara that this doesn't sound right. I think Mom is not being honest with herself about how she treats her two children. Favoritism of her daughter is all over this letter -- and hostility towards her son. You can't help how you feel, Mom, but you need to work to be self-aware and honest. So that you can avoid the appearance of preference.

    Also, FWIW, you worry about your son in 10 years. I worry about your daughter too -- it does not do a child any good to be an obvious favorite. She might grow up to be an entitled, spoiled brat.

    Posted by jjlen March 10, 11 11:57 AM
  1. I think Jen's comment about doing alone time after one of the kids has gone to bed is a potential solution. But I don't think it's a good idea to leave one kid alone in the bathtub while Mom spends quality time with the other one! Likewise, Barbara suggested taking the child for a walk around the block; and leave the other 6 year old home alone? I feel like maybe some people are forgetting that the woman who wrote in is a single mom.

    Posted by Lucy March 10, 11 12:06 PM
  1. Single mom, it's definitely hard to find one-on-one time so I hire a sitter for this very purpose. I have three boys - two are twins and I rotate an hour "date" outside the house with one at a time on Saturdays. Not only are we able to bond but I learn so much about each of my sons when they're taken out of the brother dynamic. Since I started this, the rivalry has definitely died down. For what it's worth, I'm still married and their father's presence seems to have little or no effect on the rivalry piece - they most definitely seek me out for almost everything. Good luck - I trust yourself to manage it well and you will. They'll be all right.

    Posted by lolasmomma March 10, 11 01:13 PM
  1. Maybe the single mom status has something to do with this. Is he angry because dad is no longer at home? Is he craving some attention from a male figure? Is it bothering him that he is one boy and you are two girls? Somehow the line about his not showing respect for his sister and his mom suggests some confusion about how a boy or man is supposed to act.

    Acting bored and lazy might indicate some depression. I think you need to figure out why he is asking so angry and disrespectful.

    Posted by Elaine March 10, 11 01:30 PM
  1. I also feel like the single mom part might have something to do with it, but what jumps out at me is the possibility that perhaps her son reminds her of his father. It's not an unreasonable possibility that her children's dad wasn't a good partner or father in one or more ways; if her son reminds her of his father, perhaps Single Mom sees all those possible future bad traits. That would hardly be an excuse; if she doesn't want him to grow up like that, she should make sure she models what she does want him to be! Just a thought....

    Posted by Tempest March 10, 11 04:19 PM
  1. The boy may want to do more active play which can be hard on mom when she's tired. While sympathetic to a weary parent, I believe you have to meet kids where they are. A six year old doesn't have the consciousness to think, "I am going to be cruel to my sister." He is acting out because he's not getting something from you and he doesn't have the words or know-how to express his feelings.

    One-on-one time can be carved out. Sis can play quietly while mom and son play catch, play pirates, or what-have-you for 15 minutes. Create an activity box for each child. Each one fills the box with activity ideas and mom takes turns pulling an idea from these boxes. This way, son will feel he is heard when an idea is picked from his box, as will the daughter.

    I'm concerned whenever anyone uses words like "always" and "cruelly". Taking a toy from his sister and not giving it back is not cruel. Does it need to be addressed, sure. But put some perspective around it.

    What are your discipline techniques? Are they equal or are you more punitive with your son? Do you physically shake him or are your words harsher? What young child wouldn't feel resentment if sis gets kinder words?

    Posted by mom2boys March 11, 11 10:36 AM
  1. Wow, ten comments and only one person took the LW to task for the deplorable "lazy and bored all the time" comment. You ladies can really sympathise with other moms. If the LW had complained "my husband is always calling my son lazy and bored" I predict there would have been at least four calls to divorce the bum.

    Posted by geocool March 11, 11 02:40 PM
  1. Geocool, That was the first thing I noticed too. I too,figured there would be more commenters stomping on that comment alone.

    Posted by JD March 12, 11 06:54 PM
  1. I am wondering if perhaps the family needs some counseling. Not having two parents hits kids hard, and not always right away - it could be that his reaction to the living situation is only manifesting itself now that he sees how his peers live?

    It sounds like mom and son, at the very least, would benefit from some sessions with a family counselor. And no - six is not too young for that.

    Posted by Amy March 14, 11 12:00 PM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. I see this advice frequently, to spend alone time with each child. From a practical standpoint though, where's the other child while Mom is holed up with Jane? If Joe's already angry then leaving him alone, even for 5 minutes, seems counterproductive. Maybe another alternative would be for each parent to spend a couple of hours on Saturday with each child. Week 1, Mom gets Joe and Dad gets Jane. Reverse it on Week 2. Another idea would be that now that they are 6 it's perfectly normal for them to develop outside friendships. They needn't be each other's only companion, and they needn't stick together 24/7. Separate play dates could be arranged. You could talk to their school about putting them in different classrooms as well. They each deserve to form their own friendships and personalities.

    Posted by JBar March 10, 11 07:34 AM
  1. Seems like you are playing favorites... Calling him lazy at 6 and all the time... I'm guessing he's right and clearly you would rather be with your little girl then your boy.

    Posted by Shame on you March 10, 11 10:57 AM
  1. JBar I had the same thought but then I remembered that when I was a child, for a while my mother used to let one of us per night stay up a little later (15 - 30 minutes) after the others went to bed and we could do whatever we wanted with her. There were five of us, and my dad worked lots of overtime so she was often at home flying solo with all of us and rarely had the opportunity for 1:1 time with us. I really enjoyed that time and still remember it - we would make pot holders on one of those little plastic looms together. I think with my brothers, they would build legos or tinkertoys. The only thing that wasn't an option was TV. So maybe that's a way that she can work in 1:1 time during the week. Another thought is that at this age, the kids wouldn't be bathing together so while one is busy in the bath or shower, mom could use that time to spend with the other one.

    Posted by Jen March 10, 11 11:02 AM
  1. And she's a single mom. Spending solo time with each kid may not be ideal.

    Posted by Sarah B March 10, 11 11:42 AM
  1. I'm also thinking that if it has got to this stage, where the little boy is angry and hostile, that 5 minutes is just not enough. Nice idea, but you can't undo the damage of favoritism with 5 minutes a night.

    I completely agree, though, with Barbara that this doesn't sound right. I think Mom is not being honest with herself about how she treats her two children. Favoritism of her daughter is all over this letter -- and hostility towards her son. You can't help how you feel, Mom, but you need to work to be self-aware and honest. So that you can avoid the appearance of preference.

    Also, FWIW, you worry about your son in 10 years. I worry about your daughter too -- it does not do a child any good to be an obvious favorite. She might grow up to be an entitled, spoiled brat.

    Posted by jjlen March 10, 11 11:57 AM
  1. I think Jen's comment about doing alone time after one of the kids has gone to bed is a potential solution. But I don't think it's a good idea to leave one kid alone in the bathtub while Mom spends quality time with the other one! Likewise, Barbara suggested taking the child for a walk around the block; and leave the other 6 year old home alone? I feel like maybe some people are forgetting that the woman who wrote in is a single mom.

    Posted by Lucy March 10, 11 12:06 PM
  1. Single mom, it's definitely hard to find one-on-one time so I hire a sitter for this very purpose. I have three boys - two are twins and I rotate an hour "date" outside the house with one at a time on Saturdays. Not only are we able to bond but I learn so much about each of my sons when they're taken out of the brother dynamic. Since I started this, the rivalry has definitely died down. For what it's worth, I'm still married and their father's presence seems to have little or no effect on the rivalry piece - they most definitely seek me out for almost everything. Good luck - I trust yourself to manage it well and you will. They'll be all right.

    Posted by lolasmomma March 10, 11 01:13 PM
  1. Maybe the single mom status has something to do with this. Is he angry because dad is no longer at home? Is he craving some attention from a male figure? Is it bothering him that he is one boy and you are two girls? Somehow the line about his not showing respect for his sister and his mom suggests some confusion about how a boy or man is supposed to act.

    Acting bored and lazy might indicate some depression. I think you need to figure out why he is asking so angry and disrespectful.

    Posted by Elaine March 10, 11 01:30 PM
  1. I also feel like the single mom part might have something to do with it, but what jumps out at me is the possibility that perhaps her son reminds her of his father. It's not an unreasonable possibility that her children's dad wasn't a good partner or father in one or more ways; if her son reminds her of his father, perhaps Single Mom sees all those possible future bad traits. That would hardly be an excuse; if she doesn't want him to grow up like that, she should make sure she models what she does want him to be! Just a thought....

    Posted by Tempest March 10, 11 04:19 PM
  1. The boy may want to do more active play which can be hard on mom when she's tired. While sympathetic to a weary parent, I believe you have to meet kids where they are. A six year old doesn't have the consciousness to think, "I am going to be cruel to my sister." He is acting out because he's not getting something from you and he doesn't have the words or know-how to express his feelings.

    One-on-one time can be carved out. Sis can play quietly while mom and son play catch, play pirates, or what-have-you for 15 minutes. Create an activity box for each child. Each one fills the box with activity ideas and mom takes turns pulling an idea from these boxes. This way, son will feel he is heard when an idea is picked from his box, as will the daughter.

    I'm concerned whenever anyone uses words like "always" and "cruelly". Taking a toy from his sister and not giving it back is not cruel. Does it need to be addressed, sure. But put some perspective around it.

    What are your discipline techniques? Are they equal or are you more punitive with your son? Do you physically shake him or are your words harsher? What young child wouldn't feel resentment if sis gets kinder words?

    Posted by mom2boys March 11, 11 10:36 AM
  1. Wow, ten comments and only one person took the LW to task for the deplorable "lazy and bored all the time" comment. You ladies can really sympathise with other moms. If the LW had complained "my husband is always calling my son lazy and bored" I predict there would have been at least four calls to divorce the bum.

    Posted by geocool March 11, 11 02:40 PM
  1. Geocool, That was the first thing I noticed too. I too,figured there would be more commenters stomping on that comment alone.

    Posted by JD March 12, 11 06:54 PM
  1. I am wondering if perhaps the family needs some counseling. Not having two parents hits kids hard, and not always right away - it could be that his reaction to the living situation is only manifesting itself now that he sees how his peers live?

    It sounds like mom and son, at the very least, would benefit from some sessions with a family counselor. And no - six is not too young for that.

    Posted by Amy March 14, 11 12:00 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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