My children keenly observe the differences between what one sibling is allowed to do and what another is not allowed to do. “How come so-and-so can play with the Ipad? What about me, can I play, too?” Their demands for equal treatment often fail to consider the bigger picture. Edric and I have reasons for our decisions that we may not always be able to explain. All they need to know is that we are after their greater good. But it can be tricky navigating the “fairness” issue. We don’t want any of them to ever feel like we have favorites.
I have seen the detrimental effects of favoritism carried into adulthood — how it causes long term emotional damage and leaves painful, unmet longings. Just read through countless stories in the bible where parents played favorites and made a negative impact on the course of history! Sure, God’s grace can redeem bad parenting, but he hasn’t designed families to be the breeding ground for jealousy, envy, strife, ugly comparing and hurt that result from one child feeling less loved or another feeling more important and more valued than his or her siblings.
While I believe that most parents are well-meaning, sometimes we can be ignorant of the way our actions affect our children. We don’t mean to favor one child over another but it can come across that way. And if we don’t make it absolutely clear that we love each of our kids the same; that they are all special and equally cherished by us, they can possibly misconstrue some of the things we do as unfair or favoritism.
For example, Edric and I train our kids to put themselves to bed. With the exception of Elijah, who was our first, we sleep-trained the rest of our brood by 3 months. When they were 6 or 8 months old they could be put down awake and they would fall asleep on their own. This certainly made my life easier! I wasn’t such a zombie and my evenings were free to spend with Edric.
Recently, however, my 2-year old Tiana wanted me to hold her in my arms to fall asleep. Since I was trying to transition her from finger-sucking and the soon-to-be loss of her yaya, I would allow this. In fact, I welcomed doing this because my motivations were to help her stop sucking her fingers. Within fifteen minutes or so she would be knocked out, her head tucked into my arm, and Edric or myself would carry her to her bed.
The other boys noticed that Tiana got this extra time with me. On one of the evenings when the kids wanted to linger in our bedroom for a little longer past their bedtime, I told them they had to go to their room. They hadn’t napped in the afternoon and they were playing with friends all evening so they had to sleep earlier than usual. They saw Tiana tucked under our bed covers and she wasn’t asked to leave but they were. It must have looked very “unfair.” But, the boys obeyed like good soldiers and walked off to get ready for bed. After a few seconds, I heard one of them cry. It didn’t sound like Titus or Elijah, so I thought, that is Edan.
“Tiana, wait for mommy, I will be back.” I went out to peek into their room where I saw Edan curled up with a pillow between his legs and his eyes were red. I climbed into his bed to hug him and asked, “What’s wrong, hon?” I had my suspicions. He was quiet so I waited.
Edric came in to pray with the kids, holding Tiana in his arms. He too wanted to know what was wrong and asked Edan to explain. In between sobs, Edan finally blurted out, “Tiana gets to sleep in your room.” Edric understood how he was feeling so that night, he put Tiana in her own bed and he let me deal with Edan. Tiana whimpered for a bit but eventually closed her eyes. She was fine.
In the meantime, I stayed with Edan and kept hugging him. He started to smile. When I asked him if he was okay, he nodded. I assured him that I love all of them the same…that I have no favorites, that they are all special to me. For about ten minutes, I stayed on Edan’s bed and wrapped my arms around him. I thought he might want me to stay until he dosed off but when I asked him if I could go back to my own room he was absolutely agreeable. He didn’t act needy. All he wanted to know was that he was just as important to me as his sister was.
The next morning, Edric talked to the children about the idea of fairness while we were in the car coming home from church. He explained to the boys that expecting mom and dad to treat everyone in the family the same is not a healthy expectation.
“Sometimes, I may choose to give something to one of you but not give it to another. Other times, one of you may get to do something that another will not. And if you are always comparing and thinking it’s not fair you will be very unhappy. We love all of you the same. You need to have an attitude of gratitude. Be thankful when one of your siblings gets something that you don’t. Be happy for them and don’t compare.” He explained to them that they need to trust us to decide what is fair.
The reality is, we may not always be able to be “fair” based on their perceptions. For example, we don’t always buy presents that cost the same. That may seem unfair. But we think about what each of them needs and what suits their personality. Some of our children were spanked more than others and that might seem unfair. However, each one of them needs to be disciplined in a personal way because they have their own character issues. One child may learn obedience faster and another may be more resistant to authority.
Therefore, the challenge is not to focus on being fair but to discern what is best, for their good. God does the same with us. He offers us his unconditional love and acceptance (that doesn’t change), but he allows us to go through individual trials and he blesses us in accordance with what he deems as beneficial. It can be tempting to say, “God is not fair,” when he is actually acting in love, consistent with his nature. We simply do not understand the bigger picture…that he is always concerned about developing Christ-like character in us and orienting us toward eternity. When we fail to recognize this, we can be resentful and develop notions about God as someone who doesn’t care, who isn’t personal, who is a cosmic kill-joy. His grand purpose and who he is reveal otherwise.
Unlike God, however, Edric and I need to pray for wisdom so we can be sensitive about the attention, affirmation, affection, and attitudes we have toward our kids.
Do our kids know that we love them all unconditionally? Are they aware that we don’t make comparisons or judgements that make them feel like we prefer one over the other? Do certain actions or statements that we make cause them to harbor resentment or nurse insecurities? Is it absolutely certain in their minds that we make choices for their greater good?
Was it fair for Tiana to fall asleep in our bedroom? That evening, when Edan felt badly about it, it may not have seemed so. But once the kids understood the greater context — that she was in the process of being weaned from finger sucking and in transition with the soon-to-be loss of her yaya, they knew why we were doing it. And they cooperated with that temporary phase in her life.
The day after Edan broke down, I took him out on a date. I told him we would have one-on-one time to go and buy art supplies. He was thrilled. Did Elijah feel a little bit left out? Yes. But he understood that Edan needed some attention from me at that point. So he told me he would be busy reading Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring. Titus and Tiana had to take naps so they didn’t notice my absence.
There is no once size fits all approach to parenting our kids. There are biblical principles that remain the same, that we apply in our parenting, but we always have to consider the nuances, peculiarities, personalities, strengths and weaknesses of our children. And then we customize the way we reach out to them, minister to their needs, train and disciple them. While the approach and style may be modified, the intent must always be for their greater good, to cause them to fall more in love with Jesus. But every step of the way, we must rely on God’s wisdom and guidance so that each of our kids feels confidently loved by us and secure in our relationship with them.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. (James 3:17 NASB)