Loving our Children: Separately but Equally

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

My son called from college the other night and asked to talk to his sister.

“She’s out at a poetry reading,” I answered casually. “How are things with you?”

“What do you mean she’s OUT?” he exclaimed indignantly. “You let her stay out past 10:00 on a school night?”

I braced myself for the inevitable- the one, consistent complaint that followed me throughout their childhood like a well-trained dog.

“You never let ME do that at her age! That’s so unfair!”
I gave him my time-tested answer, the one I always give when my children complain of being treated differently. An answer born from years of parenting which has taught me that diffusing a situation with humor usually works best.

“I let her stay out later than you because I love her more!” I joked. “Besides, her criminal record is shorter than yours.”
He laughed for a moment but then his voice turned serious.
“No, mom, I mean it. Why does she get to do so many things differently than I did at her age?”

Whoa! How could I explain to my 19-year-old son that we viewed each of our children with the same loving eyes but recognized from the start that they were unique, special and very different from each other, requiring us to respond differently to them throughout their childhood. That we made our decisions as parents based on who they were as individuals- because of how they acted and related to others, how they felt about themselves, what they loved and hated to do, what made them feel afraid, nervous or tense. Surely it would have been easier to treat them the same, to make uniform decisions that applied across the board. But our parental instincts told us to respond to each child in kind, according to his or her unique temperament, personality and needs as they emerged, even though it wasn’t easier or less stressful for us to do so at the time.

From the earliest of times it was understood that a child should be trained according to his mental, emotional and physical abilities. “Educate a child according to his way” the Book of Proverbs teaches us. (22:6) We are cautioned however, to avoid favoring one child over the other because of their unique abilities, blood line or lineage.

Playing favorites with our children can fill a family with jealousy, contempt and hatred and cause rifts that last well beyond the lifetime of the parent.

The Bible is replete with stories of sibling rivalry caused by parental favoritism. Abraham favored Isaac over Ishmael, Rebecca loved Jacob more than Esau, and Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other 12 children. As Genesis 37:4 tells us: “and when his brothers saw that their father loved him (Joseph) more than any of his brothers, they hated him so much that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

The rabbis of the Talmud responded to the Joseph story with the following advice: “A man should never single out one of his children for favorable treatment, for because of the two extra coins’ worth of silk (which Jacob had woven into Joseph’s special coat) Joseph’s brothers became jealous of him, and one thing led to another until our ancestors became slaves in Egypt.” (Shabbat 10b).

Our children are entitled to feel equally loved and treasured by us, even though this does not always equate into being treated equally by us. To paraphrase the insightful words of Rabbi Irwin Kula: “Loving equally doesn’t necessarily mean loving in precisely the same way. To have your children experience that they are loved equally demands that you know how to love them differently because to love them equally means to love them uniquely.”

So how do we, as parents, walk the tightrope of responding to our children differently because of their unique needs and personalities while reinforcing in them the knowledge and feeling that they are loved equally by us?

In our home we gave our children different bedtimes, sent them to different summer camps, let them ride the city bus and walk to the mall or a friend’s home at different ages; each decision based on their innate needs, abilities, fears and sense of self. For one child, we permitted more after-school activities because she had many diverse interests at the time. For the other, we prohibited nighttime driving for several months longer because directions initially posed a challenge.

When children are little it is hard to explain the reasons and feelings behind our parenting decisions. Yet it is important to take the time to admire their different strengths and assure them that they are loved for who they are.

One way is to create a special time each week to tell them. We created that time every Friday night when we blessed our children. When they were young, we told them out loud what we loved about them and why we loved being their parents. As they got older (and more embarrassed by us), we whispered special blessings in their ears along with the traditional Sabbath blessing for children. It was a time that they counted on, a time we all needed, to celebrate who they were as individuals and remind and reassure them about why and what we loved about them.

In this hectic world where school, work, social, religious and community obligations infringe on precious family time, it becomes even more important to carve out time to assure our children that they are loved, separately but equally, and give them the confidence and support they need to pursue their own unique paths into adulthood.