Don’t Treat Your Children Equally (Shabbos 10)

Our patriarch, Yaakov, had four wives.  Each of these wives bore him a number of children.  His two youngest, Yosef and Binyamin, were born to Rachel.  But, alas, as she gave birth to Binyamin, she died in the midst of childbirth.

You can imagine how difficult their childhood must have been.  The youngest of over a dozen siblings, so many big brothers who would bully them, as kids do.  And Yaakov looked upon his two little boys with such empathy and pity.  How could he make sure that they wouldn’t grow up emotionally and psychologically scarred?  It was quite the juggling act, not only because they didn’t have a mother, but because he still had responsibilities towards his other three wives and their children.

When Heaven places you in such a challenging position, you’re bound to make mistakes.  He knew that he loved all his children equally.  But at the same time, knowing how hard it was for them to grow up without their mother, he wanted his two babies to feel special.  Could he ever have imagined how much damage a little present of a coloured coat would cause to the family?

וְאָמַר רָבָא בַּר מַחְסֵיָא אָמַר רַב חָמָא בַּר גּוּרְיָא אָמַר רַב: לְעוֹלָם אַל יְשַׁנֶּה אָדָם בְּנוֹ בֵּין הַבָּנִים, שֶׁבִּשְׁבִיל מִשְׁקַל שְׁנֵי סְלָעִים מֵילָת שֶׁנָּתַן יַעֲקֹב לְיוֹסֵף יוֹתֵר מִשְּׁאָר בָּנָיו, נִתְקַנְּאוּ בּוֹ אֶחָיו וְנִתְגַּלְגֵּל הַדָּבָר וְיָרְדוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְמִצְרַיִם

Rava bar Mechasia quoted Rav Chama bar Guria in the name of Rav: A person should never distinguish one of his children from among the others. For, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool that Yaakov gave to Yosef, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter unfolded such that our forefathers descended into slavery in Egypt.

Yaakov’s mistake was not that he treated his children differently.  Successful parenting entails targeting the specific and unique needs of each child.  Every one of our offspring requires different treatment with regards to their educational, emotional, and psychological needs.  However, when it comes to material treatment, in terms of the tangible presents and goods that we give them, we must strive to make them all feel they have received their due, and that no child has received preferential treatment over the others.

Avoiding favouritism doesn’t mean that we treat all our children exactly the same way.  King Solomon teaches, “Educate a child according to his way,” which means that every child requires something different.  Some children are more inclined to text study, others are visual learners, others will shine in parallel fields of excellence, such as art and music.  Unfortunately, our system and expectations do not leave much room for success in arenas beyond the traditional areas of education.

In addition to pedagogical differences, of course, every child has different emotional, mental, and physical health needs.  If we were to treat all our children exactly the same, our family lives would be disastrous.  You can see the differences already as babies.  Some will cry more than others.  Some need to sleep with their mothers, others prefer the crib.  In fact, many mothers will attest to the different experiences they had with each child in the womb!

The challenge of parenting is to achieve similar outcomes of success for our children, with varying levels of input per each of their needs.  Some children come home, go straight to their rooms, and hit the books.  Others require cajoling, tutoring, and, in some cases, light forms of ‘bribery’ to ensure they stay focused on their studies and personal growth into adulthood.  Successful parenting means tuning in to the needs of each specific child, understanding their unique challenges, and bringing out their best qualities.

In terms of the intangibles you allocate to your children, sometimes you might appear to be favouring one child over the others.  One child might need more time than another with homework help or even just kicking around a football.  The other children see your behaviour and time and resource allocation, and potentially they could misunderstand your motives.  In such instances, we need to bring all of our children into the conversation, so that they understand why one of them might need more time and attention.  Otherwise, we run the risk that they are feeling hurt and resentful on the inside, while we remain completely unaware of their feelings.

Treating your children equally means endeavouring to strike the balance between inputs and outcomes, so that each one gets what they need to achieve their very best.  Just like your children do not look the same on the outside, they are all very different on the inside.  Each of your children is unique and special in their own way.  May Hashem grant you the wisdom to give each child what they need while making all of your children feel equally loved and valued!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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