In raising children, it's better to be 'equitable' than 'fair'

When we parents begin to raise our children, we pledge to show no favoritism among them. We will treat our children equally, expecting the same behavior from each, bestowing the same favors on each. In short, we will be ''fair.''

This noble goal sounds fine in theory, but in practice it rarely works well, because children are individuals with unique talents and temperaments. Parents who decide to be ''fair'' can often paint themselves right into a corner: If Jimmy receives three birthday presents, then Scott must receive three, too (even though it might make more sense to give Scott the one large gift he really wants). If Pauline is enrolled in dancing lessons, then Judy must also have them (although Judy has no interest in classes right now).

Worse, as parents tread the tightrope of ''fairness,'' children begin to emphasize it, too, and are quick to point out any lapses. Often they can become jealous of one another's privileges, leading to an atmosphere of bickering and rivalry - the very environment that well-meaning parents sought to avoid.

A better approach than ''fairness'' - identical treatment measured in terms of quantity - is the concept of ''equity'' - equal opportunity, with treatment appropriate to the circumstances. When parents strive for ''equity,'' each child is handled as a person, with his needs, talents, and temperament taken into account. It does not matter what is happening with another sibling at the moment. If Jimmy wants to try out for the baseball team, is ready for a new winter coat, or needs some extra attention because he's been sick, these matters are treated according to the circumstances.

The equity concept makes parenting a matter of common sense, allowing parents to enjoy the uniqueness of each child.

When our children were little, the oldest was ''into sports.'' The rest of us enthusiastically attended his games and gave him the attention he needed and deserved. The second wasn't interested in athletics, but later, when he showed a desire for piano lessons, we provided them, and the whole family cheerfully attended his recitals. Free to be themselves, the boys never seemed to compete with each other and grew up to be good friends.

Being equitable also means that issues are decided on the basis of what is appropriate for this child at this time, and never mind the others. One of our children loved to visit Grandma and spent many weekends with her. Another shared his father's enjoyment of the outdoors, and the two went on regular nature walks together. One hated to wash dishes but liked to dust, so this was the chore she was assigned. As long as we didn't emphasize ''fairness,'' the children didn't think much about it, either. They sensed that we were interested in each of them , and that seemed to be enough.

There may be periods when one child seems to be getting the lion's share of attention. When these moments occur, parents should try to arrange some special treats for the others as well. But in most homes, time is the great equalizer. The boy who was slow to develop in grade school may bloom as a teen-ager and receive much acclaim from everyone. The girl who objected to wearing hand-me-down clothes may later develop a taste and talent for sewing. In an equitable home, everyone eventually receives just what he or she needs.

If we give children the idea that life is always fair, they may build false expectations and be let down in many ways. Far better to provide equal opportunities to develop their talents, to enjoy their differences, to treat each situation in a common-sense manner.

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