Do You Play Favorites With Your Kids?

There is a buzz both online and in print about parental favoritism. Check out these observations from Katherine Bindley in a fascinating piece in the Huffington Post:

Dr. Ellen Libby, who wrote “The Favorite Child,”argued in a blog post on HuffPost that favoritism is alive and well in every family. Parenting.com even listed favoring a child as one of its “Top Ten Mom Confessions” last month, when 14 percent of respondents were willing to admit to it. And, Jeffrey Kluger, author of “The Sibling Effect,” told theWashington Post earlier this week that 99 percent of parents have favorites, and that the other 1 percent is lying.

Much of the interest in this topic stems from claims (NOT from me!) that it is natural – and even biologically hard-wired – for parents to like one child better than another, and that being either favored or not favored has lasting effects on development. So, for example, if you happen to be the favored child, you carry around a sense of entitlement for the rest of your life. And if you are not favored, you harbor anger and resentment and bring that into your dealings with the world, for the rest of your life.

What do I think? Well, I’ll offer some observations, and then pose a question for all you parents who have more than one child.

As a researcher who has studied sibling and families for about two decades, it is not that easy to find scientific evidence of favoritism. Why? Because, at least in observational studies, the majority of parents don’t really act all that different with their children.  In most cases the differences are more subtle and what you would expect since siblings frequently have different personalities, can many times be different genders, and are different ages. In our longitudinal studies, we get to see families over periods of time – sometimes across decades. So we get to observe, for example, how a parent may be much more attentive to their 2-year-old as compared to their 5-year-old (because a 2-year-old requires more attention) – but that this does not necessarily remain steady when the kids are 5 and 8.

Sure, there are outliers, but these are typically situations in which there is a lot of conflict between a parent and one child. A parent might respond differently to an easy-going child than their more demanding sibling – but such a difference doesn’t imply favoritism. Let me give a concrete example. Once I was flying to a child development conference, and a guy sitting next to me noticed the child development book I was reading. For the next 45 minutes, we had an engaging conversation about his two daughters – his 6-year-old “angel” (his word) and his 4-year-old “devil” (his word). He told me how hard the “devil” could be to deal with – and how she ended up “running the family” (his words) to always get her way. So was the “angel” the favored child? Well, he certainly found the “angel” easier to deal with. But then again, all his attention was focused on the “devil” who always got what she wanted – and he spent about 44 of the 45 minutes talking about the “devil.” So favoritism may be a slippery concept.

The point here is differences do not necessarily imply favoritism. And if you ask children and adolescents (like we do in our research studies), they are all very capable of not only telling you about the differences, but also how they are not favored! Even identical twins – twins who share the same genetic make-up – describe differential treatment and getting the short end of the stick. Why? If you have more than one child, you know very well that you cannot attend equally to each child every second of the day. So in some sense, siblings are always reacting to the moments in which they are not getting attention or feeling left out. But in the majority of cases this is not an overwhelming influence on their daily lives – it’s just a reality of living in a family and actually prepares them for the real world.

Now for the question. I get that there are some parents who overtly favor one child over another. But I think these cases are pretty rare – they are the exception rather than the rule. So outside of the normative differences you experience raising more than one child – and acknowledging that one of your kids might be easier to deal with, or you might identify (for better or worse) with one child versus another, or a given age difference at certain periods of time might skew your attention toward one child (say when one sibling is a baby, or one sibling turns into a teen) – tell me, do you really have a favorite child?

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  1. by Jenn W

    On September 26, 2011 at 11:08 am

    I think the idea of a parent being hard-wired to love one child more than the others is absolute rubbish! I have 3 children (12, 7 and 1) and I could not imagine my life without any of them. They all have different personalities (the daredevil, the princess and the goofball) and different interests (football, shopping and discovering the world) and I enjoy spending time with them while they are participating in these interests. I make sure that I have time to show all three of my children that I love them and that they (collectively) are the most important aspect of my world.

  2. by Melanie

    On September 26, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I have 2 boys (7 and 12) with extremely different personalities. When I was pregnant with my oldest son I was in an abusive relationship which I left when he was 5 weeks old. I bonded with him in a very different way from the very beginning. When I was pregnant with my younger son I was in a very stable relationship (and living situation) and I was sharing him with his very involved father. I worried that I was not as bonded with my second son but in reality the bond was just different. Now my older son has ADHD/Adjustment Disorder and ODD…he is also very intellectually gifted and artistically talented. He gets more negative attention than my younger son because he has issues following instruction and rules. My younger son is very confident, outgoing and just has a more naturally positive outlook on life. Most people prefer my younger sons personality but to me they are equally special and wonderful. I really couldnt say that I have a favorite (though I spend much more time worrying about my 12 yr old). They are both smart, funny, handsome and sweet and I couldnt go a day without either one!

  3. by Ashley

    On September 27, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I very well believe favoritism plays a huge part in this household. I am 21, my brother being 18. As long as I can remember I’ve been the one to clean and cook us dinner, which my mom never makes, while he sits on his A$$ and does nothing. Still at the age of 21, while working full time and going to school. I am the one to clean. My dad who lives 50 miles away and who I did not grow up with hates the thought of what my mom does and did. He’s all but disowned my brother, who never contacts him. My brother does not even know our own grandfather who is at the moment dieing of cancer.

    I’m in the process of moving out. But even this week. my brother is up at all ends of the night talking to his girlfriend who is going to college out of state. Who my mom will drive to said college every weekend. That’s 260 miles. That we can’t afford.

    As much as I hate to admit it, my grandma is right. I am struggling with anorexia. I have so much stress in my life with my mom yelling and B!tching at me about why isn’t this clean? or why is this book on the floor or Why is that BOWL in the sink?! That I have no time to eat or sleep. I have involuntarily lost 60 pounds. I had it to lose yes, but I was not trying at all.

    My brother barely graduated high school. Never did homework and failed nearly all his classes.

    I have an unimaginable amount of medical issues, Tourettes, Gernalized panic disorder with agoraphobia and fibromyalgia being 3 of the big ones. If I made it to school for a full week in high school the nurse and I would celebrate with a little “woo! yay” I still graduated with a 3.0 grade point average.

    Yes. Favoritism exists, and it is in this household which keeps it alive.

    My brother will still be at home when he’s 40. I, however, will be living my life. Have the adopted children I’ve known I will have since the age of 15, and STILL harbor the resentment towards my mother and brother.

    I can’t count the times I tried to run away to my dad’s house. My grandpa would have gladly drove me there. My mom would stop me and say she’ll file a missing persons report and that i’d never be able to come back again. She literally dragged me up the driveway and into the house. My grandpa lived on the SAME street. My dad’s father. He knew I was coming, I had everything packed. I was 15. Old enough to know where I wanted to live.

    When I move out. I plan to not have contact with my mom for quite some time.

    That is all,
    Ashley

    My brother will still be at home at the age of 40

  4. by NB

    On September 30, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Yes, favoritism exists, but it exists in small, almost immeasurable ways. But those small things added up over time become a very clear truth to the unfavored one. I’m not surprised the unfavored harbor resentment and anger. They KNOW they are not preferred, but they can’t quite give concrete examples because these small, almost immeasurable ways are hard to pinpoint.

    I don’t think parents love one child more than another, per say, but they probably have more of a similar personality to one, or find themselves connecting with a child of the same gender, etc., and in those regards can inadvertently favor one over the other.

    I was painfully aware that my father favored my brother more than me. I was aware of it then, I am aware of it now. It is the small things. Some examples: My parents didn’t own a video camera until the week before my brother was born. I was 5. They wanted to have a record of his birth so they purchased a video camera (even before he was born, he was favored!). I can count on one hand the number of times I have had deep, intellectual, or heartfelt conversations with my dad. And yet I listened to him having these conversations with my brother all the time. It was his tone of voice, it was the way in which he responded to my brother, it was the way he talked to other people about my brother vs. me or my other siblings. It was the SMALL THINGS.

    My dad once let me read a journal entry he had written about his kids. He wrote one paragraph about me, and two pages about my brother. I was so blinded by this fact, I was unable to even acknowledge and absorb the good things he said about me in that one paragraph.

    For Christmas, my dad always specially picked out an impressive gift for my brother, and of course personally video taped it as my brother opened it. Each and ever year, I got a generic and low quality make up set he purchased literally the day before Christmas. There were so many years I woke up on Christmas hoping beyond hope that my father had paid attention to me, learned my likes and interests, and purchased a gift to reflect those. But every year, without exception, a cheap set of lip glosses or eye shadows. I would try them for a couple days, then just throw it all in the trash.

    Most of the favoritism was shown in minute ways, in the small instances- the moments that the favored and neutral kids could easily gloss over and never take notice of. It was and is ridiculously clear to me, and the few times I told him he showed favoritism, he laughed at me and dismissed me. Had my brother been the one to tell him this, he would have said, “Is that how you feel? Come, let’s have a chat.”

    As a child, I couldn’t quite voice my feelings because I didn’t understand them. All I knew was that things weren’t fair and it sucked. Now I understand why. This has been an incredible trial for me, and I suspect it will continue to be until one of us dies. I say this because I’ve tried to have a good relationship with him. I’ve tried to gain his favor, but I am not my brother. It simply cannot get fixed, no matter how much I try.

    For many years, I tried. It finally boiled down to one time when I was sobbing and I said, “Dad, I’m tired of having a shitty relationship with you. Please, please, just tell me you love me.” He looked long and hard at me and said, “You’re just trying to play games,” and walked away. My heart was broken then, and I truly stopped trying. Years have passed, and my dad has noticed. He is really, really making an effort now, because I think he knows he screwed up. But I have stopped trying. There is no more trying with someone who has not liked you very much your whole life, and who has, in your most desperate and vulnerable and absolute plea for love and acceptance, rejected you. There really is nothing left after that.

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