Dear Dr T.,
My parents have just offered to take our ten-year-old daughter to Israel this summer. She would love to go and we feel that this is a real opportunity for her.
My husband and I are concerned, however, that it would not be fair to send her because her 12-year-old brother cannot go. His yeshiva is on the eleven month schedule, so he is in school at the time that my parents are going.
What do you think? Is it right for us to let her have this opportunity when her brother does not? Won’t this just cause unnecessary jealousy and bad feelings?
Your question is an excellent one, and one that is actually fairly common. Do you buy new shoes for two children when only one outgrows her pair? And, do you let your very immature son drive at 16 like his super-mature older brother? Even people who are confident and comfortable in their role as parents often get stuck when a situation arises that lends itself to the perception that we favor one child over the other. Thus, in our determination to be fair and have our children see us that way, we sometimes decide to hold back a child so his sibling won’t be jealous. Whether this application of “fair” is appropriate and beneficial is the question.
I think we can all agree that it is a parent’s responsibility to do what is in the best interest of each individual child. Every child deserves to have his needs and wants met, even though this may complicate family dynamics. How to accomplish this without causing jealousy or ill will in the family is a complex question. That is a skill the parent needs to develop, not the child, and the parent may need to work hard to figure out an effective strategy. No child should have to sacrifice his wants and needs in the service others. We simply don’t hold back one child for the sake of the other.
When you think about it, fair and equal are not the same thing. While equal means the same, fair means giving each child what he needs. Despite our child’s protestations to the contrary, different people do need different things. A 12-year-old may bike to school; a seven-year-old would not. A two-year-old needs his mom to put him to bed; a 14-year-old does not. Not only are we different in age and gender, but we all have different wants and needs. One child may need stylish clothing to keep up with her peers, while another could care less. While one child may need homework help – or even a tutor – another may be fine on his own. Again, the challenge is not to do the same thing (equal) for every child, but rather to operate in such a way that shows that you have each child’s best interest at heart (fair).
As always, the time to explain your understanding of fair is before a situation arises. The proactive parent establishes a certain atmosphere in the home that lends itself to the understanding that we are all different and need different things. Furthermore, we demonstrate that life is dynamic and ever-changing. What is called for in one time and place simply doesn’t apply in another. Children can learn to tolerate different treatment as long as they feel safe in the knowledge that they will “get theirs.”
When we try to make things equal, it often backfires because it sets up expectations in the child that everyone could and should get the same treatment. Such unrealistic expectations are the enemy of happiness, because they often lead to disappointment. All too often, when fantasy-driven expectations are allowed to develop in childhood, they may have a negative effect way into adulthood. It is quite painful when that child – now adult – realizes that the world does not operate according to his needs.
Yom tov was a misery for Shoshi, married two years. This Pesach it was her turn to go to her parents, but her mother couldn’t accommodate her because her older sister Alti was returning from Israel with her family and moving in until she found a place to live.
How can Shoshi be expected to miss her “turn?” Especially when Alti used to come every single yom tov when she first got married!
Shoshi railed all yom tov at the unfairness of things. She was really angry at her sister – and her mother, too. She could not enjoy her in-laws’ hospitality or the chol hamoed trips because of the injustice of it all.
It is a gift, whenever and wherever possible, to help our children see that life is not a zero-sum game where when someone gains, someone else loses. As parents, we want to model, in word and deed, an interest in our own portion, rather than looking at that of others. We need to teach our children to deal with what is in their lives and avoid comparisons with others. As a wise man once said, “The only time to look at someone else’s plate is to check if he has enough.”
It may very well be a struggle for your son to see his sister’s good fortune. But your wishing to save him pain is not a reason to deny your daughter. By not buying into his “It’s not fair!” and encouraging him to take the long range perspective that life holds different promises for us all, you help him develop realistic and healthy attitudes and expectations about his life an future.
Book Nook: Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child by Dr. Robert Brooks. Dr. Brooks is a noted child psychologist and speaker who teaches parents how to develop self-esteem and resilience in their children.
Sara Teichman, Psy. D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.