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In raising children, it's better to be 'equitable' than 'fair'

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When we parents begin to raise our children, we pledge to show no favoritism among them. We will treat our children equally, expecting the same behavior from each, bestowing the same favors on each. In short, we will be ''fair.''

This noble goal sounds fine in theory, but in practice it rarely works well, because children are individuals with unique talents and temperaments. Parents who decide to be ''fair'' can often paint themselves right into a corner: If Jimmy receives three birthday presents, then Scott must receive three, too (even though it might make more sense to give Scott the one large gift he really wants). If Pauline is enrolled in dancing lessons, then Judy must also have them (although Judy has no interest in classes right now).

Worse, as parents tread the tightrope of ''fairness,'' children begin to emphasize it, too, and are quick to point out any lapses. Often they can become jealous of one another's privileges, leading to an atmosphere of bickering and rivalry - the very environment that well-meaning parents sought to avoid.

A better approach than ''fairness'' - identical treatment measured in terms of quantity - is the concept of ''equity'' - equal opportunity, with treatment appropriate to the circumstances. When parents strive for ''equity,'' each child is handled as a person, with his needs, talents, and temperament taken into account. It does not matter what is happening with another sibling at the moment. If Jimmy wants to try out for the baseball team, is ready for a new winter coat, or needs some extra attention because he's been sick, these matters are treated according to the circumstances.

The equity concept makes parenting a matter of common sense, allowing parents to enjoy the uniqueness of each child.

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