The Favorite

I had several uncles (two are still alive so I won’t mention names), but only one do I still consider my “favorite”. I suppose that no one would see that as a problem. But when recently Tami and I had a conversation with a couple of close friends, the question arose: “do you have a favorite child?” THAT elicits horror among some people. But why?

Yes, I know the answer: one should love all one’s children equally. My response is: “that’s not necessarily natural.” However, “loving” a child disproportionately does not mean treating all one’s kids unequally.

It is basic human nature to differentiate – in every aspect of our lives. I love broccoli but hate cranberry sauce; you might like to eat fish but can’t stomach meat; and so on. I love most classical music but am bored by opera; I’m sure there are others who love opera but are bored by “only” music. So why should it be different in our relationship with people? It’s completely natural that we love our spouse, but not a neighbor. So just because someone is biologically related (uncles/aunts, grandparents, cousins, etc.) – even our children – we have to cease being in touch with our true feelings?

Of course, this does not mean that we “have” to have a favorite child. I’m sure that many parents honestly could not pick their favorite because they genuinely do not have one. And that’s natural too. But if for some reason – usually somewhat inexplicable (just like we aren’t exactly sure why we chose this specific person to marry) – we do like/love one kid more than others, that’s not something to get worked up over.

But this truism is absolutely not the same as treating them in a way that clearly marks one as the favorite over the others. By coincidence, the weekly reading of the Torah this sabbath is the last “section” of Genesis (Va’Yekhi). If there is one theme running through the entire Book of Genesis it is this: sibling rivalry is deadly, especially if fomented by parental favoritism: Ishmael and Isaac (Sarah threw the former out of her home); Jacob and Esau (Isaac’s favorite was Esau; Rebecca’s favorite was Jacob); Joseph and his brothers (Jacob clearly favored Joseph). The result: familial pandemonium. And who knows whether Adam and Eve favored Abel (murdered by his brother Cain)?

What’s the Bible saying here? Clearly it recognizes that it is “natural” for parents to have a favorite child – but just as clearly the Bible is warning us to keep that feeling under wraps as much as possible. Otherwise, the family falls apart, or worse. (As an aside I can add some more food for speculative thought: after Genesis – from Exodus onwards through the entire Book of Judges that covers about 250 years – not one Israelite leader hands over the reins of power to his/her child; interesting way to avoid having the child favoritism problem affect the entire nation!)

And now to highlight an interesting paradox: loving one’s children means treating them “unequally”! To put it more clearly and succinctly, each kid should be treated based on her/his real needs – obviously different from child to child.

An example from my two sons. Both are quite bright, but for completely different reasons each had trouble in school. As we lived in what is called a modern Orthodox community, the expectation was that for high school every boy was to be sent to a religious boarding school (girls are sent to a separate religious “seminar” school near home). The social pressure was great to do that for (“to”?) our boys as well. But Tami, especially, understood that they had different needs. So, we sent one to a vocational school to learn car mechanics because from an early age we saw that he was highly talented mechanically; the other chose a very small academic school for bright kids with learning difficulties (his was extreme hyper-activity). They both flourished in their “offbeat” educational milieu. Were we wrong to send one child “only” to a vocational school and the other to an academic one? Of course not!

My advice: if you ever have pangs of guilt because in your heart you “favor” one child over others, drop the guilt. As long as that “favorite feeling” stays there – in your heart – and is not translated into inappropriate action (e.g., Jacob giving Joseph a coat of many colors), you’re doing fine as a parent. Appropriate “inequality” (or “differentiality” if you prefer a milder term), on the other hand, is not only fine but constitutes the height of good parenting. As they grow up (and certainly when they become parents themselves!) your children will understand why “she” used to get X, and “he” would receive Y from you instead. “To each according to their need,” opined Karl Marx. Perhaps that wasn’t and isn’t the best recipe for macro-economics, but it is absolutely the right way to parent, no matter what’s going on within our heart.

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