One mantra we hear as foster and stepparents is to treat all of our kids the same. It’s also much easier said than done.  Stepchildren and foster children often will accuse us of treating our biological children as our “favorite.”  It’s not a complaint we can counter with words.  We have to live it out and let our kids see that we love them equally. But first, we have to look at ourselves and understand how to think about the problem.

How to Think About Treating Everyone Equally

The problem is built into our unique relationships.  Children are hardwired to see us as treating another child as “the favorite.”   Even biological children will accuse us of treating one of their siblings as “the family golden child.”  It’s a much more common problem, and a much stronger complaint, though, with stepchildren and foster children.

We all have a tendency to have a stronger connection with our biological children.  Some theories even hold that favoring biological ties is part of our evolutionary hard-wiring.  Whatever its source, our kids subconsciously know that tendency and look for it, while we should admit it and try to work against it.  

Because we know we have to be careful about favoritism, we tend to respond to “you’re not being not fair” either by completely denying the claim or rushing to make up the difference.  Neither extreme is the best response.  Before we can think through how we should respond, we need to take a hard look at our attitudes toward our kids.

1.   Work to Love Them Equally.  There’s no point in pretending that loving our step or foster kids as much as we love our biological kids comes naturally to us. That’s just not the way that our psyches work, and we won’t fool our kids by claiming otherwise.  What we have to do is recognize that learning to love non-biological kids usually is hard work.  With biological kids, nature takes care of some of that hard work for us, making us love babies no matter how much they disrupt our lives.  When we drop into another child’s history, we don’t have that advantage and we have to do the work by ourselves.  There’s no way to avoid doing that work.  If we truly want a loving relationship with our kids, we have to be willing to do what we did with our biological children — look past the immaturity, the annoyances, don’t expect anything in return, and work to love them anyway.

2.    Be Open to Change.  We also need to be willing to consider whether we in fact are favoring one child over another. We always need to be open to feedback, even if our kids are being snarky and immature in giving it to us.  They will notice habits and trends that no one else sees, and we should pay attention to that information.  

Also, the dividing line may not be between biological and non-biological children. We may be favoring a better-behaved child, or one with similar interests.  I’ve never had biological children, but that fact didn’t insulate me from charges of favoritism.  One of my foster children once complained that I liked my nieces and nephews more than her, and that I obviously thought they were “perfect.” She was factually wrong, but I knew I couldn’t challenge her reality.  After talking more to her and thinking about it, I realized that she was responding to my stories of travels and past history with those kids.   I didn’t spend enough time with them to actually treat them better, but my stories that did not include her made her feel left out and not appreciated.

What we intend and what our children perceive often are two very different things.  The fact that we don’t feel any favoritism will not stop our children from seeing it.  We need to be open to changing either our attitude or what we demonstrate to our kids.

3.  Realize that Our Children Are Not the Final Judges.  On the other hand, children cannot be the absolute judges of what’s fair and just.  They do not have enough life experience to evaluate family dynamics.  Adults are in charge of families for a reason.  It is our job to decide on family rules and we cannot outsource that responsibility to anyone else.  So we should consider our children’s perspectives, but we shouldn’t default to letting them decide what’s equal and what is not.

“You treat them better than me” also can be code for “I want that, too” or “I don’t like that.”  In those cases, you never can do anything equally enough to satisfy your kids.  Setting rules to make them happy will just turn into a tyranny of the uninformed, and having that much responsibility will make them unhappy people anyway.  

So, examine yourself and be willing to improve either your attitude or your communication.  But be ready to make a decision that leaves your children unhappy if it’s the decision they need.

4.   Understand that Equality Is Not the Goal.  We have to accept that being fair in the sense of treating everyone exactly the same is not a good goal.  In our justice system, for example, we know that a $500 fine will impact a rich person much less than someone making only minimum wage.  The penalty may be exactly the same, but it is not necessarily just.

In the same way, treating kids exactly the same at all times will not be fair.  Different kids need different things at different times.  A child who has had a bad day at school may need a one-on-one trip to the ice cream store.  Promising the kids who are left behind their own trip for ice cream will be exhausting and financially irresponsible.  Just because one child needs a nice gesture on that particular day doesn’t mean that all of the other children get the same gesture on demand.  They each will have their day when they need something extra from you, and it won’t hurt them to learn to wait and empathize with their sibling until then.

We do have to avoid the trap of spending all of our time on the child with the most needs.  It is all too easy to overlook children who go along quietly and don’t demand anything from us.  They will have bad days, too, but we may not know about it.  We need to learn how to pay attention to them, ask without prying, and be intentional about spending time with them.  Every child will need something different from us on different days; we need to recognize that treating them differently often is the most equal thing to do.

5.   Respond to Different Needs

Finally, we have to be willing to respond to whatever needs a child has.  Yet we need to give them consistent structure and expectations.  The best balance I have found is to keep the rules the same for all of the children, but adjust the consequences to each child and situation.  My sister has always said, for example, that the worse consequence she could impose on her oldest child was to restrict his reading.  Her youngest son, by contrast, didn’t care about reading, but really hated having his electronics restricted.  For her children, having the same consequences for every child would have been unfair and counterproductive.

In the same way, we may sometimes need to delay or switch consequences for a child.  We all recognize that a child with a sprained ankle needs a pass on taking out the trash.  In the same way, a child suffering a mental health crisis or facing a looming project deadline may need a break from a particular chore or particular consequence.  That fact doesn’t mean that they need to completely ignore their responsibility.  You switch chores or find different consequences.  My rule for older children, for example, was that if they needed a break from a chore because of an extracurricular activity, they still were responsible for getting it done.  They could negotiate with a sibling to exchange chores or they could ask me for help.  It helped teach them that the trash still needed to be taken out, no matter how bad our days were going, but that we were part of a team and needed to help each other.


At the end of the day, treating our kids exactly the same is rarely fair.  We may not be able to explain that complicated concept to our children, but we do need to demonstrate it.  “You’re playing favorites” should cause us to pause and think, but exact equality is not a good goal for our families.  Fair play, consistency, and meeting each other’s needs almost always will require different rules for different needs and different situations.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.