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I was having a conversation with an economist colleague of mine about how he tries to treat his two children equally when it comes to gifts. In an effort not to show favoritism he and his wife always spent the same amount of money on each of them for birthday presidents, clothing, extracurricular activities, etc.  I asked whether it would make a difference to him whether one child was interested in items or activities that were considerably less expensive than the other, e.g., if one child was interested in surfing and the other in flying. I also asked about whether their rule of equality applied to costs of education.

For example, what if one child were academically gifted and wanted to go to Harvard and then to medical school while the other was not as intellectually gifted and wanted to go to a junior college and become a musician? My colleague indicated  that he had set aside an educational fund for each child and would simply gift the unused funds to the nonacademic child. While this approach might seem fair, I wondered whether it would encourage children to simply go the least expensive route and pocket the cash, unless of course there was the stipulation for educational purposes only. But would this be fair or equal, e.g., in the case of a nonacademic child?

What would this approach teach children? How does the rule of equality apply in these instances? Does a parent simply set aside an equal amount of money for each child and simply give the child the funds to spend as the child sees fit? Does equal money mean equal love?  Or is love shown by encouraging the individual interests of the child regardless of the cost?  What is the message that parents give their children when everything has to be equally distributed and reduced to economic equality?

In their desire to be fair and equal, parents seldom think about the values they are imparting to their children in the process. I was suggesting to my colleague that it might be more important for parents to think in terms of the needs of the child when giving gifts or deciding on education or even clothes.  Two children may have different abilities, likes, and tastes in fashion. Perhaps it would be more important to acknowledge these differences on a personal level, letting the children know that their differences are being acknowledged and respected.

In this way the parents would be treating the children equally insofar as the values being addressed.  Equality should be given in terms of love and respect, despite the fact that there may be disparities insofar as how much such support may cost financially. Love and respect does not come with a price tag. The message to be delivered would be along the lines of to each according to his or her needs. Perhaps fair and equitable could be a guiding principle rather than economic equality.

If this process were started early enough in a child’s development, the message would be clear that each child was going to loved and supported according to their needs and personality. They would learn that money is not the equalizer.  Over the course of a lifetime, however, my suspicion is that the economics will balance out, but more importantly, the message based on values, not value, would be delivered.  Children would learn that their parents act toward them based on principles of equal opportunity rather than simple economic equality.

Parents often feel guilty for feeling more drawn to one child over another. Sometimes I wonder whether parents want to compensate for such guilt by insuring concrete equality thereby leaving no evidence of their favoritism.  Parents will say to their children that they love them equally.  However, the truth is that they love their children differently and feel differently toward them at different stages of the child’s life. Not knowing how to deal with these differential feelings, they may attempt to equalize the tangible evidence by giving equal financial support.

It is easy to give children equal money, but not quite as easy to give equal emotional connectedness and love delivered in the way that each child may need. Parenting is not easy. It is far easier to give equal dollars than to figure out what each needs. Sometimes equality is not equitable.

[Dr. Dreyfus is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist, relationship counselor, sex therapist, and life coach in the Santa Monica – Los Angeles area treating low sexual desire, premature ejaculation, sexual addictions, drug and alcohol abuse as well marriage and relationship communication and intimacy issues. The profits from his latest book, LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT along with his other five books, are being donated to charity through the website Book Royalties for Charity and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Please become a fan on his Facebook Fan Page by indicating “like” on the page by clicking here. You can also find more tools to help you experience a more fulfilling life by clicking here to visit his website.]