A Plea for Unequal Treatment

Vantage Point

A recent Banner article answered a question from a person who received an advance on her inheritance to meet a current need (November 2009). The article advised, “In the interest of family harmony, treating children equally is important.”

That’s a common belief, and one that many people follow. At Christmas my wife’s mother always made sure she spent exactly the same amount of money on gifts given to her three daughters. If more was spent on one, the others would receive an envelope of money to equalize the amount.

Though such an approach seems noble, it’s not always admirable or wise.

None of us supports favoritism—the purposeful practice of including one child while excluding others. But all of us recognize that children have different needs and personalities and cannot be treated equally.

That’s crystal clear when a child with a disability is part of the family. Siblings generally do not begrudge the extra time, attention, and material resources their parents extend toward this family member. Rather, they join in that endeavor because of their love for their brother or sister. They recognize that special needs call for special, non-equal treatment.

The same principle should be operative in every family. The call to treat children equally does not take into consideration the situation or particular needs of each child. It can even create an atmosphere of jealousy and comparison in which siblings calculate how much they receive in comparison to a brother or sister.

Jesus illustrates how poisonous that can be in the parable of workers who are treated graciously, but not equally, by their employer (Matt. 20:1-16). The sideward glance at fellow workers instead of the upward glance at their loving employer sours the attitude of those trapped in the equal-treatment box.

My parents gave a substantial amount of money so the children of one of my siblings could receive a Christian day-school education. The rest of us rejoiced in our parents’ desire and ability to assist and never even thought of asking if the amount was going to be deducted from our sibling’s share of the inheritance.

Some of our children have greater needs and fewer resources than others. To assert that they must be treated equally to promote family harmony may indicate that family members need to grow in grace—grace that makes Christians unique and the gospel evident.  

About the Author

George Vander Weit is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.