“Personal accountability!” My husband, Mark and I chimed out in sync at a Saturday morning family school session at our synagogue. “Taking responsibility for one’s actions.” We’d been asked by our Rabbi to name something we’d learnt from our parents and hoped to pass along to our kids. Lots of parents had good answers; “work hard,” “be kind,” “give to charity.” But we liked ours best. It was, after all, the central theme of our parenting philosophy. Having both been raised in families that harped upon us to “make your own breaks” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” we were committed to passing those tenets on to our own offspring.
After we’d finished, our kids were invited back into the room and the Rabbi asked them to go and pick out which value on the list their parents had written. Oh, this was gonna be easy. We snickered to ourselves silently as we waited for Eli to ace this assignment.
“Accept everyone?” he questioned proudly pointing to the third value listed on the white board.
“Well, that’s certainly a good one,” I answered. “But that’s not the one daddy and I wrote. Why don’t you try again, sweetie.”
“Treat others as you would like to be treated?” he confidently corrected.
“Um…no, honey,” I stammered a bit surprised by his error. “Guess again. It’s something that daddy and I make you think about all the time.”
“Be kind!” he shouted with a victorious lilt.
When he trepidatiously pointed to “Ride bicycles together,” I lost it.
“Eli,” I said in a voice much louder than I’d meant to, “None of our bicycles even have tires. We haven’t ridden bicycles since last Halloween. Really?”
Then I pointed to our all capped “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY.” “Oh,” he calmly voiced, “I didn’t see that one.”
I was furious–at him, at myself, at my husband. What did all our work add up to if he couldn’t even pick the right parental value out of a line-up of usual suspects that seemed blatantly obvious to us?
I tossed and turned over this all night. Then I woke up and recreated the list on a small poster board and asked our older son, Levi, who wasn’t at the family school event, to peruse the list of parental values and tell us which one was the one we had listed.
“That’s easy, mom,” he answered in less than a nano-second. “Personal Accountability.”
I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “That’s what you’re always saying,” he went on, “That’s pretty much the whole premise of how you parent.”
I wondered if Mark had tipped Levi off and prepped him for my experiment. But my husband firmly denied providing our eldest with any pre-test coaching. The bigger question became; why hadn’t Eli been able to identify our parenting platform?
After much deliberation, we realized that sub-consciously we’ve been giving Eli a pass on a lot of things, in large part due to his younger sibling status. It’s just easier and less of a struggle to ask his older brother to help out. This was a text book birth order pit and we’d stumbled right into it.
As parents, it’s easy to declare loving all of your children equally. But that doesn’t mean we treat them all the same way. Finding those inequalities and managing them is a critical challenge that every parent of multiples needs to face. It’s not a pleasant reality. Maybe you do expect more from one child. Maybe you coddle the second. Maybe one’s easier to manage so you rely on him or her as more of a helper.
It’s not a simple issue. But it is one that’s worth examining. What do you think? How equitable are your parental expectations?