Parenting is challenging

Parenting is challenging my concept of equality. I have long held as a core value that, as Lincoln articulated it, all men are created equal. That always seemed fair to me (once "men" was translated to mean "people"). Since I was a child I, perhaps naively, expected fairness from this world. It was a blow to realize how unequally people are treated after they are born. The unfairness of this has fueled the passion with which I pursue progressive politics.

But now even my assumption of equality upon creation is under question. Parents tell me all the time how different their children are. Sometimes it is just a matter of one being good at art and another good at music, without value judgments attached to the differences. Sometimes one child just seems to have a stronger sense of herself than her sibling. She is better at almost everything she tries, including getting along with others. It is hard to see the equality in that. And sometimes a disability saddles a child with difficulties that seem grossly unfair.  

As parents we are supposed to treat our children equally. I don't think we can ever do this perfectly. "Gifted" children tend to evoke more genuine pride from their parents, leaving the others feeling less than. "Special needs" children often evoke more special attention, leaving the others feeling neglected. No matter how hard parents try, they can't make it all equal for their kids. We do our best, but we are people too. We have our own feelings, values, and dreams. Many parents, if they were honest, would admit to loving one of their children above the rest. They don't choose it that way. That's just how they feel.

Like Tommy Smothers, many adults feel that they were the less loved of their mother or father. In my family, extroversion was highly prized. The quieter of us were a disappointment to my mother. She hid it well. But we knew.

In my practice and in my life I have come to know people whose gifts were never recognized in their families. The values of the parents were mismatched with what the child had to offer. The parents were looking for the spectacle of a mountain range, and the child held only the beauty of a flower. But which is more, really? 

The Little Prince said "That which is important is invisible to the eye". Perhaps to see the equality of our creation takes a questioning of our assumptions about what is of value and what is not. Or a questioning of our parents values. Perhaps what we achieve or how impressive we are is not the best gauge of our worth. 

I have only one child. So my loyalty to her is not challenged by the possibility of admiring her sibling more. I am grateful for that. But I still feel disappointment in her at times. The world offers so many dazzling comparisons. The boy who started playing soccer when he was three. The girl who can sing back a whole song in tune after hearing it once.  

So far, though, I haven't met any quite like my own.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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