09/25/2014 02:00 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

You Can't Treat a Second Child Like a First Child

Kevin Hartnett

Yesterday afternoon while driving to Howard Field, Wally, my youngest son, said a funny thing: "I've never been to soccer practice." It was funny because he has been to soccer practice many times. We kept driving and Wally kept talking and eventually, his meaning became clear. When he said he'd never been to soccer practice before, he meant his own soccer practice, which was true, and also not something that was going to change that evening.

The soccer practice was for his older brother, Jay, who's in his third season playing soccer. Jay started last fall, when he was 4, and my wife and I decided that we'll sign Wally up when he's 4, too -- which means next September. We reached this conclusion a few weeks ago, and it felt like a clean, fair decision. But what's fair depends a little on where you sit. From his view in the second row of our minivan, Wally had different ideas about what he deserved.

We got to the field and I blew a whistle to round up the U6 Pteranodons. I introduced myself as the coach, and then told the kids I wanted them to dribble their balls and follow me.

Wally, who'd stayed close to my side, wanted to know where his ball was. I thought it couldn't hurt to have him participate in a few drills, so I gave him my ball, which was the only full-sized one on the field. We set off. Wally dribbled valiantly in the back of the pack, the ball coming up past his knees; when we regrouped in front of a goal, he was still 15 yards off. "Wait for me," he called, hurrying toward us.

After that, it was hard to convince Wally this practice wasn't his.

Next, I had the kids dribble with a partner. After the last pair had gone, Wally asked when it would be his turn. "In just a minute," I said, blowing my whistle and moving on to the next activity.

That next activity was a game where two kids raced each other to a soccer ball. Wally must have given up on waiting, because the next thing I knew, he was in the middle of the field. In their rush for the ball, two Pteranodons knocked him over. He fell on his back and lay there for a minute, confused: Is this how soccer practice is supposed to go?

Finally it was time to scrimmage. Wally lined up by my side, waiting for the other team to kick off. I didn't see how he could run with the big kids without getting hurt, and I waved my wife over for help.

When Wally was born, I was convinced I was going to treat him exactly the same way I treated Jay. I knew all the statistics about the achievement gap between first and second children, and I knew that by reputation, younger siblings have a harder time getting attention. I promised myself that in our family, with my parenting, it would be different.

Three years in, it's clear that's the wrong strategy, even if it were possible to achieve. Jay, after all, has never had to deal with watching an older brother get something he really wants for himself. The two boys experienced the first three years of their lives in unavoidably different ways, and my wife and I should probably make parenting choices that reflect that.

But last night, all we could do was damage control. While I waited to start the scrimmage, my wife picked Wally up and carried him away. He twisted back toward the field and was hysterical by the time they reached our blanket on the sidelines. For the rest of practice, he cried hard in her arms, while his brother galloped up and down the field in front of him.

This post originally appeared on Growing Sideways.

"Like" Growing Sideways on Facebook.