It's easy for parents to prefer to spend time with their easier kid over the more difficult one. But that has its repercussions. Experts offer ways to help you stop favoring your easygoing child.

By Erica Lamberg
September 19, 2019
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (1)

Despite being raised in the same house by the same parents, my two children are polar opposites. My daughter, born first, is a rule-follower, straight-A student, president of clubs, and a lover of books and game shows. My son, three years younger, is a social butterfly, thinks school is annoying, plays video games, and would rather organize his jersey collection than read the books I pile on his desk.

But my son, now 18, has always been the easygoing one. He’ll eat anything I make and won’t complain about it. He doesn’t stress over simple things or push himself too hard. I can’t say the same for his 21-year-old sister. She pushes herself to excel at everything, and sometimes, the pressure takes its toll on her.

Truth is, I have caught myself saying "my son is the easier one" in front of my daughter. But experts explain why it’s important to resist the urge to favor your easier child and offer tips on how to stop doing it.

Why is favoring the easier child so problematic?

As parents we might not even realize we’re even showing favoritism, but children usually notice. For example, when your children get into an argument, who do you often side with? And do you spend positive one-on-one time with one child and not the other? Do you always feel stressed around the child you feel is more difficult? "These are all ways of favoring the easier child," says Heather Ackley, MSW, executive director of New Hope Parenting Solutions, a Colorado-based nonprofit helping caregivers implement effective parenting strategies. "It also comes out in punishments—the favored child often gets less or easier consequences than their siblings."

Reality is, it’s only natural to want to turn to your easier, more laid-back child. But constantly doing that can divide children into the “good” and “bad” kid. "That can erode your relationship and set your kids up for increased sibling rivalry," says Amy Morin, a Florida-based relationship expert, psychotherapist, and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do. And this can lead to lifelong psychological scars for the child who feels they aren't favored. “They may turn into adults who feel unlovable, which can lead to a host of relationship problems,” says Morin.

It might also encourage the child to keep filling the role of the difficult child and act out more. "Kids want attention—even if it's negative. And if you're not careful, you'll accidentally encourage your difficult child to get attention any way they can, which may lead to more misbehavior," adds Morin.

How to curb the favoring

There are ways to stop leaning toward one child over the other. A big way is spending quality time with your difficult child—no matter how difficult they've been that day. It can reduce behavioral problems in the long run. Doing this also shows the child that regardless of their struggles or the fact their personality doesn't match everyone else's in the family, they're still worthy of your time and attention. "A child who thinks they're bad or defective won't believe that they can change their behavior or learn from their mistakes," says Morin.

Having one-on-one conversation with the child you struggle with is also a good idea. "Let them know you love them, and they are very important to you and that you are working on being fairer," says Ackley. "You could then touch base with them each night for a few minutes alone to see how they felt the day went."

If you’re in a two-parent home, it can also help to discuss the issue with your partner and have them call you out when they notice your behavior, advises Ackley. "I often recommend parents have a code word or gesture in these situations, so the children don't know what is happening, but the parents do,” she says. “This will help remind you in the moment so you can fix it right then.”

Another idea is to journal about your interactions with each child for a few minutes each night. This will help you replay what happened so you can go through the interactions and identify for yourself if you favored one child over another, says Ackley.

And if you still aren’t able to fix the problem, opt to find a therapist or parent coach for additional support. “You may need help and that's OK," says Ackley. "Asking for help if you feel stuck or need more ideas is a very healthy and beneficial thing to do."

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