In the movie “Two Weeks,” I can’t forget what Sally Field told her children—“I cannot love you equally, but I can love you specially.” She said this when asked who among her four children she loved most.
Field played a middle-aged mother who was dying of ovarian cancer, and in her remaining two weeks, her grown-up brood flew home to be with her. In a video meant to be her goodbye to her family, she was asked this question.
I’ve remembered Sally Field’s line since then. It is one that parents can keep in mind, especially the parent who’s bold enough to claim that one can love one’s children equally all the time. In reality, loving your kids equally is tough to do, even impossible sometimes.
I believed my mother was always a biased parent (for my brother; we’re only two), and I thought that she could have been more egalitarian—until I became a parent myself. Then I realized that a parent, honestly, can’t treat his/her children equally—all the time. You usually attend to or lavish attention on the child you feel needs it most.
I think that any parent who claims that he/she loves his/her children equally is in denial. Nobody can claim that fully, in the same manner that no one can say with finality that one has been a fully successful parent. A successful parent of a toddler, then of a teen, a young adult, an adult? Parenting never ends—why does one realize that late in the day?
Mommy’s boy, daddy’s girl
You will not run out of cases of “unequal parenting.” Start with clichés—mommy’s boy, daddy’s girl. Who isn’t one of either? It’s true—mothers spoil their sons to death, and are extra protective of them. Fathers are the same with their daughters. Things would have balanced off ultimately—except that mothers usually have the last say, and Filipino dads have a way of deferring to or leaving mostly every family decision to their wives, so if you’re a daddy’s girl, good luck just the same.
My friend is the only girl in her brood—yet the mother dumps all the responsibilities on her, even as she cuts her sons some slack.
In another example, the parents, wittingly or not, have made the family life revolve around the needs and whims of one of their children, ever since that child survived a serious illness, neglecting the other kids in the process. That would have been understandable, except that that lopsided parenting carried over into the adult years of the children. Such overprotective parenting has left that favored child the least independent in the brood.
If we go into the topic of inheritance or distribution of assets, we will never run out of examples of disparity and inequality. Perhaps every family or clan has such an example, and every family has, at one time or another, suffered the consequences of inequality. Many, especially those of big estates, land in the news headlines and society gossip columns. Assets are hardly ever distributed equally and fairly, and so are responsibilities.
A doctor-friend noted that from what he’s seen of his patients, siblings don’t necessarily share equally the responsibility and costs of looking after a sick parent. “Often, only one or two is left paying the bill. Hardly is it ever equitable,” he said.
What I like to believe—and what I myself try to practice—is that parents try to determine the strengths and weaknesses of their children, then work from there. They develop their children’s strengths, capabilities and talents, and try to make up for their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They attend to whoever is weak and vulnerable, and who they feel needs caring for.
So how can one try to parent one’s children equally?
For starter, give your children equal opportunities—from the basics to education to everything else, down to giving that mobile phone. This will always be a work in progress. Even after you’ve sent them through school and set them up, your role as a parent doesn’t really end.
If you favor one, at least don’t be brazen about it, and in the process, hurt your other children. Sometimes children bring their hurts and deprivations over into adulthood. “Mom did that for her, but not for me,” I remember a friend, now all of 45, telling me what her mother did for the favored sister—when they were kids.
Try to know your children’s strengths and weaknesses, and work from there. You can build on their strengths and talents—be it in character or skills (Sports? Math? People skills?). You can help them overcome their weaknesses or compensate for these. For instance, you try to protect more the son or daughter who is bullied in school. When my sons were in elementary school, I was vigilant more over one—who could fall prey to bullies—than the other, who was feared by bullies himself.
Know your children well—who they are and what they can or cannot do. I guess this is what Sally Field’s character meant—treat each one special.
If you cannot treat them equally, at least try to be fair. It’s hard to do this every moment of your parenting life, but at least give it your best shot. Sense of fairness, a sense of generosity—these are values you pray your children would have, and they could, but only if they see it practiced in their environment, starting with you.
Tell your children to watch out for each other, today and tomorrow. The one who can stand up to bullies should protect the one who’s always been bullied—this is what I always tell my sons.
If you’ve not been able to treat your children equally—and parents hardly could—at least your children should try to make up for your lack, in their adult years. This is how things balance up in life ultimately.
Love is never perfect. A parent’s love is far from perfect. It is a work in progress.