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Favoritism in Parenting

It’s fair to say that at one time or another, any child with a sibling feels that his brother or sister is parents’ “Favorite.” That title may have been bestowed by one sibling to another when he or she gets a reprieve from washing the dinner dishes, a later bedtime or seems to always get to choose the restaurant.

While many parents wouldn’t admit to having a “Favorite” child, a mother from England had no qualms about broadcasting hers. The mother of four children – girls who are nine, seven and two and a son who is one – recently appeared on the British daytime program This Morning. Her interview caused an uproar with her comment that her 2-year old daughter is her favorite child. She explained this away by saying that her oldest daughter was colicky and her second daughter was once her favorite. As for her son, she claims that she really wanted another girl.

Sometimes as parents, we play favorites with intention, but for good reason. Think of the newborn who needs more attention, or the child who may have special needs. Age sometimes sets apart middle children, who likely don’t get the chance to reap 100% of parental attention as do the oldest and youngest.

Jennifer Jenkins, a researcher at the University of Toronto who has studied differential parenting (or what we think of as favoritism), commented “Children don’t mind that parents treat them differently. They only mind when they see that differential treatment as unfair and that comes when things aren’t explained to children.” Children can misinterpret their parents’ behavior. For example, explaining to siblings that a newborn needs to be fed, diapered and bathed because he can’t yet take care of himself helps them to understand why the little one gets so much “mom” or “dad” time. Explaining to them that an older child gets a later bedtime may not be met with joy, but the explanation helps younger siblings process that the later bedtime is related to age not because mom or dad loves that child more.

According to Jenkins, mothers with risk factors, such as single parenting, low income, past abuse and safety issues at home are more likely to favor one child over another than mothers who had less stress in their lives. (Science Daily, 2013) Jenkins reasoned that a mother who is over-burdened is more likely to pay attention to the child who is the easiest to parent – she may not have the endurance for a high-spirited, precocious and rambunctious child.

Even the perception of unequal treatment can destroy sibling relationships, according to Karl Pilener of Cornell University. (Fairbanks Daily News, March, 2015) Experts say that it fosters an unhealthy family dynamic, where the “unfavored” siblings resent the favored child. Sadly, those feelings may linger well into adulthood before there is any attempt at repairing the sibling relationship. “Unfavored” children are more likely to suffer from depression, have greater aggression, lower self-confidence and poorer academic performance. (Psychology Today, 2009)

They also may become over-achievers, striving endlessly to gain parental affirmation which never comes.

Meanwhile, the favored child may develop a distorted view of self. The feeling of entitlement may make it difficult for him or her to have successful relationships in adulthood.

Consciously or unconsciously, parents may gravitate to a child who shares a similar interest, or who is eager to share details of the school day while another child prefers the solitude of his or her bedroom. Experts say that’s okay. Just be sure to praise and recognize the strengths of each child, and to similarly set age-appropriate expectations and discipline for each child. It’s unhealthy to be consistently dismissive to one child but undeservedly permissive with another.

Consider the “6 Do’s and Don’ts to Avoid the Appearance of Favoritism” which appeared recently in a U. S. News and World Report piece by Susan Newman (January, 2018)

  1. Explain why you spend more time with one child. Perhaps one child needs extra homework help or you want to brush up on another child’s soccer skills before a big game.
  2. Carve out time alone with each of your children. It can be 10 or 15 minutes at bedtime, a “private” chat before dinner or a walk after dinner.
  3. Avoid taking one child’s “side” over another’s during their disagreements.
  4. Don’t compare your children, setting one up as the better example by saying things like, “Why don’t you finish your homework like your sister does?”
  5. Focus on each child’s pluses – his loving nature, her sense of humor or responsibility – to make each feel special and unique.
  6. Don’t compete with your partner for a child’s love and affection. Parenting is not a competition.

My own daughters have asked me how I can love them both equally. Maybe that is something we can’t fully understand until we become parents. But, to verbalize my thoughts, I stole the words from Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, and explained that when our second daughter was born,” my heart grew bigger”. It seemed to satisfy their young minds.