The ‘different’ child as an agent of change

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Parents should understand and accept the differences between their children’s abilities and interests, writes MOHAN DHALL
In many families each child has special abilities, talents and aptitudes. It is rare to find a first, second or third child with equal academic ability, similar interests, senses of humour or similar level of independence. This can be very confronting for parents who want a school system to treat their child as unique. Parents want each child to be affirmed for their own special abilities and strengths, and also to be nurtured to improve in areas that are of relative weaknesses.
When children have very different characters and when one child is academically inclined but another is not, there can be stresses in parenting and schooling. It can be very difficult not to compare children. Often eldest, first-born children are keen to please parents (and vice versa) and can be very focused on schoolwork. A second child may have very different strengths. Sometimes a second child is more socially aware and more adept at making friends and also sharing. A third child can complicate the situation. For example if the first two children are of the same gender, a third child with a different gender can cause difficulty for parents in terms of adjustment and expectations.
When children are different, families need to find ways to accommodate these differences. This is essential as each child needs affirmation, and sometimes a child who feels different can also feel hidden. The importance of this extends to the classroom. After all, how can parents advocate in favour of a child they cannot see or do not know?
How does difference court a need for change?
It is very typical for one child to be an excellent ‘talker’ who is adept at commanding attention and articulating what they want and need. It is also typical for another child to be much quieter and seemingly more ‘emotional,’ complaining about not being heard, to not being understood, or expressing dissatisfaction more easily. Clearly parents and schools both need to learn how to adapt to meet the needs of both children.
The excellent talker is easy to manage and parents may find they tend to ‘negotiate’ with such children. This can contrast with the more emotional child who the parents may be dismissive of or find very ‘hard to please’.
This difference courts a need for change for a very simple reason. Families are the most important place for a child to find acceptance, to make mistakes, to grow.  If a family cannot accept or accommodate a child, that child can grow up misunderstood, ‘far behind their eyes’ or feeling like the ‘black sheep’ of the family. Later in life such children can move away from their parents to lead independent lives, always regretting their childhood.
Recognising that there is difference
A family that adapts to difference learns to grow with each child. A child who is a bit ‘different’ to everyone else can be precisely what a family needs to grow. Therefore, the ‘different’ child, if recognised, can act as an agent of change.
It can be hard to recognise difference even though the cues are right in front of us. A child who says things like:
· ‘I don’t fit in here’
· ‘No-one ever listens to me’
· ‘Why is he/she (the sibling) always getting their way?’
Recognising that a child is left out can be a humbling experience. But rather than drown in regret a parent should, like a teacher, ask themselves, “what can I change to make this child feel included?”
Once this question has been asked, a few things have occurred, an acknowledgement of exclusion, an awareness of a need to change and also an affirmation that change is to be made.
The implications for schooling
If parents can act to become inclusive of each child, decisions about school choices and decisions made through the years at school are easier. For example, parents will question whether each child should go to the same school. After all, why should a non-academic child attend the same school as their highly academically successful sibling? This almost certainly will lead to a situation of the younger child feeling compared and inadvertently devalued by teachers.
If a child does attend the same school, the parents who treat their child according to their strengths will be far better able to advocate in favour of this child, and reduce the level of comparison between siblings.
A further implication is how to manage and shape expectations around academic performance. One child may not need tutors. Another child may require speech therapy, or the support of academic tutors. One child may know the university course they want to get into and which field of study they want to pursue. Another child may not be suited to university studies.
In summary
Recognising and accommodating the difference between siblings is an essential aspect of parenting with very significant educational ramifications. A child who feels ‘different’ needs to be understood in such a way as to feel affirmed for who they are.

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