I used to be bothered by the way in which our patriarchs treated their children. Abraham had two children, first Ishmael and then Isaac. When Ishmael laughed derisively at a celebration for Isaac, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, insisted that Ishmael be cast out from the family and Abraham agreed. Abraham sent Ishmael away with his mother, giving them only bread and a bottle of water.
Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons. When Rebekah heard that Isaac wanted to first bless his son, Esau, she dressed up Jacob to appear to be Esau, because she favored Jacob over Esau. Rebekah managed to get Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing from Isaac. Isaac favored Esau, while Rebekah favored Jacob.
And then we have Jacob, who had 12 sons, but favored Joseph above them all, because he was the son of his old age. Jacob gave Joseph a coat of many colors, a coat no other brother had. His brothers resented Joseph for being the favorite so much that they decided to kill him. When he was thought to be dead, Jacob then favored his youngest son, Benjamin, unwilling at first to send him to Egypt because he so favored him.
I asked this question to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman [rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob] and he responded that our patriarchs treated their children correctly because they were prophetic and could visualize what the future would bring. “Treat your children equally,” the rabbi said.
In my family, I always believed that my parents loved me with my sister, and I followed that practice with my children. I saw this also to be the case with my uncles and aunts, who loved all of their children. Indeed, I came to believe that the morally correct practice was to avoid favoring one child over another. As a result, we always had a gift for each child of a similar amount, and we took special care when they were young to avoid favoring one child over another.
However, treating my children equally got harder and harder to do as they grew. I have three children and two graduated from the [Greenfield] Hebrew Academy, and the third graduated from a different school. She had a different early education. In high school, they went to the same school, but then they parted in how they educated themselves in college.
One child lives here in Atlanta, another lives in Texas, and a third lives in Europe. And now with nine grandchildren, my wife and I want to treat all of them equally, but it is impossible. We can’t see our grandchildren equally, we don’t support them equally, and we don’t have the same relationship with them, partly because of the geographic distance, but mostly because they are different.
The issue in treating our children and grandchildren equally differs depending on whether it is loving them and having a relationship with them, or helping them financially and in other ways. Each of them have different needs and wants. Each of them are at different stages in their lives, and each of them may want our help in different ways.
For one child, my wife and I can help in growing her business, while another child doesn’t need that kind of help. Some of our grandchildren have specific needs, while other grandchildren do not. Some of our grandchildren want more of our time, and some need more of our money. In the end, my wife and I decided that we would not keep track of what we do for any child or any grandchild. We wouldn’t keep track of the time we devoted to any of them to make it equal or keep track of whatever we gave each of them. We would continue to love all of them, but we would provide for each according to their needs, and that meant not equally.
And so, in thinking more deeply about why our patriarchs favored one child over another, I have concluded that it isn’t possible to treat each child equally in every way. Children have different needs, not just financially, but also in relationships. Yes, we love them, but when that love translates to spending time with them or spending money on them, it is not equal. It is not for lack of love; it is because their needs are different.
The Bottom Line: For children and grandchildren, love them all, but recognize that their needs for relationships and finances are different.