Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fair is not equal

I've grown very fond of a blog, woulda coulda shoulda, in which a mother recounts her usually amusing experiences raising a tweenage daughter and a younger son, who has aspergers. She made a comment that she tries to be a fair parent, but that she also aims to educate her children that fair does not mean the same thing as equal. I think she specifically said it in regards to the fact that her son has some sort of aid in the classroom while her daughter does not. But she's also mentioned it in more humorous ways, namely lying. Apparently, lying is a normal childhood development that is delayed or non-existent in aspergers. So when her son starts to tell (ludicrous) lies, she's actually secretly pleased, not of the lying per se, but that he's gaining a skill set that is particularly hard for him.

Growing up, whenever I complained that something wasn't fair, my mother would inform me: life's not fair. Yeah, I noticed. But what really irked me was when it would be so simple to make it fair, and yet it still wasn't.

I went to high school with twin boys. One was completely normal, at least as far as I knew, and the other was confined to a wheelchair with some sort of neuromuscular condition. When the "normal" boy turned 17 (when you get your driver's licence in New Jersey), his parents bought him a sweet black sports car. Their logic was that they had spent tens of thousands of dollars on their other son's wheelchairs, and that it would be fair to get something for their "normal" son. Obviously, it was very fortunate for both boys that the parents had such means.

But was it fair or equal?

It certainly wasn't fair to the one in the wheelchair that his parents bought him wheelchairs, which were a necessity to him, and a sports car, which was a luxury for his brother. At the same time, it wouldn't have been fair to get nothing for the normal boy simply because he was normal. But perhaps the treatment was equalizing.

As a child, one of my best friend's brother was also confined to a wheelchair. And also coming from a family of means, she was given many lavish gifts. At times, I was actually jealous of the many things she had. But at the same time, her life would have been very different had her brother not been handicapped.

Was it fair to her that her parents had to give so much attention to her brother, who obviously needed their help more? Was it fair to him that much of the attention he got wasn't because of who he was, but because of the limitations he was faced with? Honestly, it doesn't seem fair to anyone. But maybe her parents were trying to say, we love you both, but your brother needs us more, so instead we're going to make sure you have nice clothes and go to a quality college, because in many other ways we can't be fair or equal to both of you.

She went to Dartmouth, and while we've lost touch, last I heard she was happily married and beginning med school. Clearly she didn't get the short end of any stick, but how much longer would that stick had been had her brother been healthy?

From a practical, non-emotional perspective, it is easy to see how and why parents would focus more of their energies on their less healthy, not "normal" children. And it's not fair to these children that life is simply going to be hard for them because of these limitations which they had no choice in. But it's also not fair to the normal, healthy kids that their parents have to pay more attention to their siblings. And while I can definitely see how each child might argue, life's not fair! it's certainly more unfair for the kids with the limitations.

So let's look at the other side of the coin. I knew an adult woman who was still suffering from feeling neglected by her family because she was simply normal while her sister was a highly gifted the point that the family moved so that her sister could receive better training.

If you had a child who showed extraordinary talents in some area, be it music, arts, sports, whatever, would it be fair to that child to not cultivate those gifts? At the same time, it wouldn't be fair to your normal children to not give them their share of attention and opportunities.

What is a parent to do? I haven't got any idea, which is one of the many reasons I'm skipping the whole parenting debacle. I suppose a goal would be to be fair to each child, not between them, to treat them equally, but not necessarily the same way, to do your best to pay equal attention to each child, even if it mean occupational therapy for one and art lessons for the other. Because your children aren't likely to remember how much money you spent on them versus their siblings, or how hard you worked to be a good parent to each of them, but they will take with them the perception of feeling loved. They will remember whether or not they felt like they were loved as much as their siblings.

Good luck with all of that.

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