Veronica Bidwell, author of The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties, discusses the importance of treating your children equally during Christmas. Admitting that children with specific learning difficulties tend to receive more attention than their siblings from their parents throughout the year, she reflects that Christmas should be used as a time to bridge rather than expose these gaps.
As we come up to Christmas I find myself thinking about ‘fairness’. Am I being fair in the way I plan presents for children and grandchildren? Is fairness to do with value, with what they want or with what they need at this particular time? Is a scooter equal to a pair of pyjamas or a boxed set of CS Lewis’s Narnia books?
Children develop a keen sense of fairness and justice at quite an early age. I think most of us can remember the indignation and hurt if things within the family didn’t seem fair. Why did my little sister always seem to get away with things for which I would be told off?
There are things children want and there are things children need. All of them need love, time and attention from the important adults in their lives. They need support, guidance and discipline. They may need help with homework, in preparing for exams, in mastering a new skill. Help may entail time, attention and resources.
Our children are all individuals and in many households there will be one child whose needs are greater or more compelling than those of his or her siblings. Maybe one child is struggling at school. Maybe he is experiencing an area of specific learning difficulty (for example, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or dyscalculia). Whatever the issue, he or she does need good parental support and this need is likely to be ongoing.
This can cause a real imbalance within the family, where life can all too easily be dominated by the needs and behaviour of the child with difficulties. And this is where the issue of fairness arises. The extra help given with homework or reading may be done at the expense of other siblings. Parents can end up feeling fraught and fractious, so everyone suffers. Dads may think mums are too soft. Mums may think dads are unrealistic. Then there is the disruption caused by the ADHD child who holds everyone up in the morning because he has forgotten his games kit. Siblings may feel that parent time and attention always goes to the one with difficulty, or feel resentful if they are required to help out too much.
So, what can parents do to keep life as fair as possible?
First of all let’s banish guilt and focus on solutions. It is important that parents do not feel guilt-ridden if their energies seem to focus on the needs of one particular child. There are ways in which parents can organise and plan life so the impact on siblings is minimised and hurt feelings are kept at bay. This takes good team work, planning and tough love.
I know from discussions with many hundreds of parents that things work best if parents are on the same wavelength. In particular it is a great help if parents are able to work together to plan how they are going to manage. They need to discuss the problem or issues and think through the best strategies to manage. They need to provide mutual support.
If you are a single parent you too need support. Can you enlist the help of the extended family or a close friend to provide a sounding board and to assist with planning and implementing extra help?
Make sure that the time needed to provide all aspects of additional support is planned for – leaving it to chance may mean you can’t fit it all in. Put it in the diary in just the same way that after school activities are diarised. Make sure that time for the rest of the family is also scheduled.
Can you diarise a special time each week when each child has the uninterrupted attention of dad, mum or other special adult? If siblings know that they will get their special time it can restore a sense of fairness. This time, once agreed, should remain sacrosanct.
Rules and routine
Your child with a specific learning difficulty may need extra help but he certainly may not want it. He can become an adept master of parental manipulation. He has no difficulty in producing excuses as to why he cannot find the right book or finish a project or homework right now. Parent heartstrings are pulled and (unfair) exceptions made. This is where clear rules and routines are needed.
A regular, non-negotiable routine (weekly or daily) will help everyone. It will help reduce discussion and argument about when the child with difficulty is expected to settle down to homework or additional support. It should reduce time wasting and procrastination.
Rewards for all
Parents and child can discuss and agree short and medium term goals and how these can be achieved. Congratulations and positive descriptive feedback is important when your child has worked well (i.e., be specific about what was done well and in what way). Parents also need a reward from time to time. Plan for this and when necessary have the flexibility to put all help on hold and to take a well-earned break.
Finally what about those Christmas presents? They really are often more about want than need, but it is still important to find a way of being fair. For little children (threes, fours and fives) the number of presents matters more than the value. I could see disappointment written all over Lucy’s face when she saw her little brother opening his fourth ‘small’ present from grandparents after she had opened the expensive Kano computer she’d requested. So make sure they have an equal number of gifts to open. Once children are older and understand about the value and expense of items, there does need to be equity over the value of presents given.