Islam teaches us the principle of treating our children with justice, and treating children justly usually means treating them equally. We see this clearly in the hadîth cited above. The Prophet (peace be upon him) declared the father to be unjust, because he gave one child a gift without giving an equal gift to the others. In this case, treating the children unequally was the same as treating them unjustly.
But does justice always mean equality? This is an important question, since it is essential for us as Muslim parents to understand what justice between our children entails. We know the matter of justice is serious in our religion, because the Prophet (peace be upon him) told the father to "Fear Allah". This is a strong rebuke to the father on account of his conduct. Such a strong rebuke shows us that being unjust in our dealings with our children is a serious sin.
Consider the consequences when we favor some of our children over others. It creates hatred and resentment between siblings where love should be. It makes them envious. It ca also make the child who is treated less favorably to suffer from self-doubt and low confidence.
The Pious Predecessors exercised great care and vigilance to be fair to their children. They tried to be equal in how often they paid attention to each child, how often the played with them, spoke with them, even how often they smiled or looked at them. They only made exception when they had to show anger or disapproval to a child for some wrongdoing, and then they did this with fairness in order to correct that child for that particular misdeed, and that with the intention to develop the child's character.
The Qur'ân gives us a good example, in the story of Joseph, of a family where some children felt that one brother was more loved and more favored by their father. They went so far as to plot to kill him. In the end, they tossed him into a well in the chance that a passing caravan would take him away.
Therefore, as fathers and mothers, we should always show equal love for our children. Being equal in material things, like clothing, gifts and treats is certainly very important part of it, but it is not the whole story. It is also crucial to make sure not to show favoritism in the time and attention that we give to any one of them. We should make sure that our children feel that they are equally loved and esteemed.
An important part of this, however, is to recognize that each of our children is a unique individual, with his or her own particular set of needs, talents, and interests. Therefore, when we should show our love equally to each of our sons and daughters, we should do so in a manner that responds to the unique needs of each. What is best for a small child may not be appropriate for an older child. Likewise, what will interest, please, or benefit one child will not be the same for another.
This is where justice and equality do not mean exactly the same thing. There are times and ways in which we will have to treat our children differently. There are three factors that need to be taken into careful consideration:
1. Children have different emotional constitutions. Some children have a greater need for affection, while others have a greater need for praise or reassurance. There are children who must be taught things with more care and thoroughness and others who want to be included in decisions. True justice entails giving each child what he or she is in need of.
If a parent gives the same exact gift or treatment to each, some children will be favored by it while others will be disfavored. The parent may believe he or she is being just through such dogmatic equality, but he or she is really favoring the child who actually wants the gift or actually benefits by the particular kind of attention being given. The other children lose out. The unwitting parent might be bewildered to see that most of the children are resentful and spiteful, in spite of the parent's best efforts to be equal and fair.
2. Since each child is a unique individual, each will behave differently towards his or her parents. It is unavoidable for parents to feel differently about their children on account of how their children treat them. Sometimes, a child's behavior warrants special treatment. A child who shows extra respect and good behavior to his parents will be acknowledged and rewarded for doing so in the way that child's parents respond to the good behavior. This may actually be an unwitting response of the part of the parents, but it is a natural one.
3. Sometimes, a child's circumstances demand some form of special treatment. Obviously, a small child needs more direct care and attention than an older one. Also, a child who excels in his or her studies needs to be shown special regard for doing so. A child who is religious and morally upright should be shown respect for it. A child who has a disability should be shown the extra care, affection, ad support that dealing with the disability requires. With grown children, one who is poor or facing unfortunate circumstances can be given the help that he or she needs.
In all cases, however, the essence of justice must always be upheld. Though our hearts have a tendency to love one child more than another and to favor some of our children at times over others, we should do what is in our power to be just between them.
Though this is certainly complicated by the fact that just treatment is not always the same as equal treatment, we must to the best of our abilities and knowledge strive to be fair and to show equal love. And May Allah forgive us for whatever unwitting mistakes we might make.