Posts Tagged ‘ Sibling Rivalry ’

The “Favorite” Child Thing: It’s More Complicated Than It Seems

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

By now you’ve probably heard about the daddy blogger generating lots of controversy by stating, in no uncertain terms, that he has a favorite child. Many parents find this to be troubling; others might think he’s being honest. What I want to add to the mix is that the issue of favoritism is actually pretty complicated when you study families over time. Let me explain by making three points that I’ve discovered after years of observing families.

First, I do believe that some parents play favorites. That said, you can’t really define “favoritism” by getting only one person’s take – you really need to study the family as a whole and see how the family system works. Maybe a parent thinks – and articulates – that they have a favorite. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a positive thing for the “favorite.” There can be increased expectations and pressure to live up to the billing. There can be, perhaps surprisingly, an insecurity that comes with that status. Sometimes a child that is favored will feel like life at the “top” can be challenging – so that when affection or attention gets shown to another sibling, they start to wonder if they are losing their status. So if you do have a “favorite” keep in mind that it’s probably not especially healthy for any of the kids.

These observations apply to families where there is a blatant favoritism. My second point is that I don’t typically see such extreme favoritism in most families, despite the claim that 95% of parents have a favorite and the rest are lying. Rather, parents respond differently to different traits in their kids. Most typically, kids see themselves as getting the short end of the stick, one way or another! A daughter might complain that the parents are stricter with her than with her brother when it comes to social matters. A younger child might feel dumped on because they have to wear hand me downs. The list goes on and on. Most siblings are really good at figuring out what the other sibs get – but if you prompt them enough they also know what benefits they get as well. (I know, because I’ve done this in lots of studies). So, generally, this whole favoritism thing, in the vast majority of families, is a very nuanced thing. Each kid is different, each parents behaves somewhat differently with each kid, and there are positives and negatives that go along with that.

My final point is that these dynamics can change a lot over time. Parents may “like” one kid better than another at particular moments in time because they are easier to deal with. Think about having a young teen who is acting like, well, a young teen, and a sweet little 6-year-old who loves being with you. Okay, the young teen might cause you a bit more grief. But that might change seven years from now. And that’s how it goes in families and with kids over time. The whole thing is very dynamic. So labeling a “favorite” over the long haul is not as straightforward as it might seem.

So where does this leave us? Given that siblings will inevitably be different people (even identical twins, as I will illustrate in a future blog post this week), I think most healthy families work because parents respect those differences and in fact embrace them. And all the other stuff is just called a typical day.

Image of father with sons via

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Preparing Child #1 For Child #2: Great Advice From An Expert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Readers of our blogs know that Berit Thorkelson and Jill Cordes are both expecting their second child. Their happy news got me to thinking that it would be interesting to get some questions from them about preparing Child #1 for Child #2, and use that as a platform to get expert advice from a colleague, Dr. Laurie Kramer. Dr. Kramer is Associate Dean of Academic Programs and Professor of Applied Family Studies at the University of Illinois. She is a leader in the study of how kids adapt to having a sibling – both before and after birth - and her work was featured in the book “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children” (by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman). So, here are some questions and answers, split into “Preparing for New Sibling” and “Adjusting to Siblinghood.” Note: the focus is on when Child #1 is a toddler (a typical time when Child #2 comes along).


Should parents be in a rush to talk to Child #1 about Child #2?   

No! There’s no need to flood them with the idea. In fact, it’s okay to wait a while. You probably want to introduce the idea when real changes are happening, including when mom is noticeably showing (e.g., middle of the 2nd trimester) and pregnancy is having obvious physical effects on mom (e.g., exhaustion).

What kinds of things should you say? 

First, keep in mind that the messages should be short and repeated – this way Child #1 will have something concrete that really sticks in his/her mind. These short messages should focus on the fact that Child #1 will have a baby to love and care for! This helps kids understand that they have something to be excited about.

Is it possible to over-hype the new baby?

Yes! While this is obviously a big event in the house, and many changes are happening, Child #1 needs to feel like the new baby is not going to dominate everything. And Child #1 has lots of other things going on which deserve focus.

So you should keep Child #1′s life pretty normal? What about things like potty training? Should this be postponed or worked around the expected birth date?

Keeping Child #1′s life as normal as possible is the way to go. Their own readiness for things should be your guide. So if Child #1 is ready to start potty training, go for it. It is possible that you might encounter some setbacks because of all the changes that will happen, but these setbacks are ususally very time limited. Better to follow Child #1′s own developmental timetable as much as possible.

Are dolls a good way to let Child #1 practice caring for a baby?

Well, dolls are a good idea – but they are limited. It’s much better if you can have Child #1 spend some time around a real baby. So if you have friends or relatives with a baby try to arrange some time for Child #1 to be around them and play with the baby.


Okay, so the day comes, the prepartion is over, and new baby is here. Now what? Is there anything to say to Child #1 to adjust to the reality of having a baby in the house?

There is, without question, a big adjustment to be made  - having a sibling is indeed complicated (see some recent Red-Hot Parenting posts on favoritism in the family and labeling of siblings). And naturally Child #1 has a lot to deal with. That said, it’s important to communicate from the start that Child #1 has a new baby too – and a new role as older brother or sister. Make Child #1 feel important by telling them (frequently) that Child #2 will love him/her, and look up to him/her, and will get a thrill from playing with him/her!

But of course Child #2 is going to demand lots of time and attention and take time away from Child #1. What about that?

If at all possible, it’s a great time to have someone else – a friend, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or even dad – start to devote special time to Child #1. This will help a lot and let Child #1 experience a little healthy indulgence too!

Yet there is going to be rivalry, right? How should a parent handle that?

Brothers and sisters are always going to have some rivalry, so indeed Child #1 will do some type of acting out. It’s really important to not overreact as a parent! Try talking (calmly) to Child #1 to see if he/she can articulate the issue(s). And just handle it by focusing on the behavior and directing the behavior in a more positive way. Repeat – don’t overreact! – meaning don’t escalate the emotions. Try to be understanding while promoting appropriate behavior.

Is there anything that a parent should NOT do with Child #1?

In addition to not overreacting (!), it’s important not to dwell on the negatives if Child #1 is having a tough time. Chances are if you acknowledge the challenges, find someone to give Child #1 some special time, and encourage Child #1 to play with Child #2, the negativity will start to dissipate over time.

How about books about siblings? Should I stock up on these to read with Child #1?

Books can be a great tool but you want to make sure they have the right message. Many of them focus way too much on dramatizing the negatives about having a younger sibling – you can probably tell this from the titles, some of which are really awful! Find a book that is realistic but emphasizes the positive experiences using a good story and nice pictures.

So that’s it for now – thank you Berit, Jill, and Laurie! Readers, let me know if you have other questions. And join me in following Berit and Jill’s blogs to keep updated on how Child #1 is doing!

 Image by David Castillo Dominici courtesy of


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Do You Play Favorites With Your Kids?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

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. 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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