As their children grow up, parents are often surprised to discover how different each child is from the others, even though they have grown up in the same family. Of course, differences among siblings are the rule, not the exception. One challenge for parents is to deal with these differences without seeming to favor one child over another.

Except for twins, the most obvious differences among siblings are in age and sex. Differences are also evident in temperament, interests, confidence, resilience, vulnerability, social style, sense of security, achievement in a variety of domains, physical and mental health, rate of physical and sexual maturation and physical appearance. And while diversity and differences may be a source of pride for parents, they may also be a source of confusion and frustration, as well as uneven attention, praise and other displays of affection.

Why They Are Similar and Different

What are the factors that influence your child's personality and other attributes? Two major influences are at work: nature (genetic factors, heredity) and nurture (experience). These interact with each other in ways that are particular to each child. To better understand the similarities and differences among siblings, let's look at both of these factors more closely.


Because of heredity - the biological or genetic influences of the same two parents on each child - parents might expect their children to be alike. But overall, children have only about a fifty-fifty chance of developing any particular inherited trait (physical appearance, personality, intelligence, aptitudes, health), and even when these traits are present, they can vary.

For instance, researchers have found that siblings tend to be more similar in their physical characteristics than in their likelihood of developing the same diseases. Also, while siblings may resemble one another in their intellectual aptitude and other psychological characteristics early in life, these similarities generally diminish by adulthood, while differences become more pronounced. Even in childhood, siblings with similar levels of intelligence may differ in their school achievement, since academic success can be strongly affected by the different life experiences of each child.


Nurture (or experience) refers to the nonhereditary influences on your child's development. They include social factors such as relationships with siblings, peers, parents, and other adults, as well as environmental influences like illnesses, accidents, nutrition and cultural experiences. Other forces come into play as well, including your child's perceptions of herself and others, past experiences, self-expectations and the expectations others have of her.

Siblings share some experiences but have many others that are not shared. While shared experiences generally contribute toward similarities, even a shared experience may affect each child differently. And since most experiences are unshared, they contribute to differences between children too.

In the early school years, for instance, qualities such as intelligence and academic achievement are largely determined by heredity and shared experience. However, as children grow, they have more unshared experiences, which gradually help differentiate one sibling from another. Siblings even perceive and interpret shared events differently, and these different perceptions can be important in shaping a child's development and self-image.

Biological Differences

Age and sex are the most readily apparent differences and similarities among siblings. Older children expect certain privileges, in part due to the greater level of responsibility they are expected to assume in the household. Younger children expect special consideration because they are less independent.

Sometimes parents have difficulty treating children of similar ages differently, even though they realize that each child could benefit if they did. Boys and girls are treated differently in our society, and some of that difference may be seen as unfair by a child.

Some children are different because of a problem in physical, psychological or social functioning. For example, a child with a learning disability may need extra time being read to or helped with homework. The special attention these children require can be a source of jealousy and conflict unless it is handled well. Sometimes, however, children who seem different from their siblings because of an evident handicap have learned to handle that problem well and actually differ more in some less obvious way, such as in their personalities.

Parents face a difficult juggling act in meeting the varying needs and expectations of their children without falling into the trap of being accused of favoritism. If you learn how to listen to and observe your children, you will be more aware of their different perceptions and needs and thus can respond more successfully to each of your particular children and to the whole family.

What Differences Mean for Parents

Siblings are destined to be more different than alike. But as you watch your children grow up, remember that their similarities or differences are not as important as their overall development toward becoming positive, productive, healthy and kind human beings.

In order for your youngsters to reach those goals, they need to feel loved, trusted, competent, and respected for who they are, not for who they are in comparison with their siblings. Children who are raised in this way will develop resiliency, self-confidence, the capacity for risk-taking, the ability to set and achieve goals and a sensitivity and respect for others.

Of course, you should be monitoring your children's relationships with one another to help them learn to avoid and resolve conflicts. At the same time, make an effort to accept, appreciate and respect the basic uniqueness of each of your children. Honestly appraise each youngster's strengths and weaknesses, and encourage his or her growth and development based on that appraisal. As you nurture each youngster's individuality, he or she will develop into a special person of whom you will be proud.

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