Parenting Issues: Playing Favorites

It takes many forms, and exists for a variety of reasons. Children tend to recognize it more readily than do their parents, and it is more common during times of family stress, particularly of the sort that results from marriage problems. When it is not recognized and addressed, it can create long-term emotional problems and can devastate family relationships. “It” is favoritism, and it is far more common than we might like to think.

When parents are surveyed on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents say that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another at least occasionally. They also typically admit that they know favoritism is hurtful to children and that they try to avoid it as much as possible. Some parents, however, remain blissfully unaware of the possibility that they sometimes act in ways that reveal a bias toward or against one of their children, even though it may be blatantly obvious to others. “I see the frustration and behavior problems in our oldest child resulting from the favoritism their father shows our youngest child,” said one parent in response to a recent Vision survey on the topic. “It is a very serious problem in our family.”

Indeed, it is a serious problem in any family where it is an entrenched pattern, and it affects everyone. Unfavored children have consistently been shown to exhibit high levels of depression and aggressive behaviors, and a reduced sense of self-worth and social responsibility. But favored children are usually quite as well aware of parents’ preferences as less favored children, and they are not immune to the harmful effects.

A painstaking examination of data from three separate North American studies addressed this point by looking at the effects of favoritism on multiple children in the family and comparing results across, as well as within, a total of 5,488 families. Published in the September 2004, issue of the journal Child Development, the review found that, on average, parental favoritism had negative effects on all children—not just unfavored siblings. These effects were categorized primarily as “externalizing” behaviors, which refers to emotional-behavioral problems that show themselves in the form of antisocial and aggressive conduct, but effects in cognitive ability (specifically related to verbal reasoning) were also apparent.

This news should not surprise us. Common sense alone should suggest that favored children might be insecure about their own “privileged” status, since they would easily be able to observe the unjust and unpredictable nature of the parent’s treatment of other children. Researchers also suggest the privileged child may even feel empathy, or even guilt, for the “underprivileged” sibling’s experiences; or feel the loss of what might otherwise have been a close sibling relationship. There is a solid basis for the latter suggestion: It is well known among child development researchers that preferential treatment by parents seriously undermines the relationship between siblings, a relationship that otherwise has the potential to provide tremendous benefits throughout their lives.

One point is worth emphasizing at this stage, however. Just because parents may treat children differently does not mean their actions are necessarily “preferential.” Preferential treatment is that which leaves a child feeling less loved, or less favored than another, and even very young children are quick to notice this type of injustice. On the other hand, it may be impossible—as well as impractical—for parents to treat their children exactly the same (with perfect equality) because of differences in age and other individual needs. Differential treatment in these situations does not necessarily lead to favoritism, but there are certain factors parents can and should be on guard against.

For instance, youngest children are favored more often than older or middle children, a fact that researchers attribute to earlier-developed social skills. Theoretically, youngest children become more sensitive to social nuances as they work to establish an identity that is unique from the siblings who have come before. As a result, they may seem “easier” to love; less challenging to parents. On the other hand, some research suggests that first-borns have other distinct advantages which could potentially predispose them to favoritism instead. Not so for middle children, however. Research is consistent in pegging a child in this birth position as the least likely to advance over siblings in parents’ favor. Unless, that is, she happens to be the only girl among boy siblings. Parents tend to show more warmth toward less aggressive children, and in most families with mixed-gender children, these most often tend to be girls. Children with serious health problems or disabilities may also be predisposed to favoritism, since they require more attention from parents. And in step-families, biological children may be favored over step-children, although the reverse occurs as well.

Fortunately, children are quite capable of understanding that older, younger, step- or disabled siblings may have different needs than they do, particularly when parents take the time to explain why this is true, to assure them that it doesn’t reflect a difference in how much they are loved, or even to involve them in age-appropriate caretaking activities. This may be particularly important after the birth of a new child, when older children may feel “displaced” in the parents’ affections. When the needs of each child are met—as different as those needs may be—children typically will not perceive a parent’s differing treatment as evidence of favoritism, and it seems to be the perception of favoritism that is most instrumental in creating conflict among siblings.

In families where treatment of all children is fairly negative, one child may be indirectly favored, not because of actual parental preference, but simply by virtue of the fact that he or she isn’t the most frequent target of blame. Subtle “coalitions” may even form between the favored child and one or both parents, with the result that the less favored child is scapegoated and bullied by the whole family, particularly in those families with multiple relational problems. Alternatively, the scapegoated child may respond with resentment and aggression toward the “preferred” sibling.

Although there are far too many families who have experienced this extreme and disturbing level of preferential treatment, most parents do understand that all of their children crave their love and attention and they try hard to satisfy this universal hunger equitably. But doing so requires that parents become keenly aware of each child’s needs and that they carefully consider how to address them. Otherwise it becomes all too easy to misjudge the gap between the levels of need that may exist between children, inadvertently creating a sense of favoritism.

For example, a father who has no difficulty hugging a preschool daughter may fail to notice that his adolescent son also craves physical signs of support, encouragement and even physical affection from him. Other families may make the mistake of dividing their effort and attention along gender lines. Certainly, parents will spend some time mentoring a child of the same sex, but it should not be assumed that a child of the opposite sex doesn’t need just as much of our time. Sons benefit greatly from time spent with mothers, and daughters benefit just as much from time spent with fathers.

Unfortunately, children may still perceive favoritism where parents are sure they have been even-handed. While in some cases it may be the child’s perception that needs to be worked with and changed, it is important for parents to entertain the idea that it may be their own perception that is biased. “Parents who have genuinely tried to avoid favoritism are always distressed when their children believe that they have favorites,” says Peter Goldenthal, in Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate. Director of Child and Family Therapy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Goldenthal recommends that parents try not to be defensive if this occurs. “Instead of leaping to defend yourself against what may seem like an attack on your parental love,” he advises, “be curious. Try to find out what makes your child believe that you care more about his sister, would rather spend time with her, or appreciate her talents more.” This approach may help us uncover biases we didn’t even know we had—and may allow us to respond to our children’s needs more effectively.

But what if a parent has more in common with one child in particular? Suppose the two share the same interests, and they just naturally gravitate toward one another? Is it really reasonable to expect a parent not to have a favorite child? Can parents really succeed at loving children equally?

Turning these questions around, we could ask: Isn’t it possible for us to change our feelings about people? Can’t we learn to love people with whom we have little in common? Isn’t it worthwhile to learn to enjoy new activities simply to connect with someone we love?

These questions are important for parents to ask themselves, because regardless of whether other physical needs of children may differ, their need for love and support from parents does not. Each of our children has an equal need for us to show them we are interested in supporting their strengths and encouraging their activities, and our ability to do this has little if anything to do with how much like us they are. As one of Goldenthal’s clients eventually realized, “going to a museum with his son did not require that he be especially interested in art, only that he be especially interested in his son.”

Being interested in their children equally requires parents to appreciate the particular blend of talents, abilities and personality strengths that makes each child unique. Unfortunately, parents often sabotage their own success by making comparisons among their children. Labeling one child “the creative one” and another “the math genius” can stimulate each child to feel jealous of the other’s talent. “All comparisons, even positive ones, have two problems,” writes Goldenthal. “They pigeonhole children, limiting their freedom to discover for themselves who they are, what attracts their interest, and in what areas they have the potential to excel. They feed competition among siblings. We can recognize our children’s unique capacities if we acknowledge who they are and what they can do without any sort of comparison.” Doing so benefits both parents and children. In addition to helping parents appreciate their children as individuals, honest and realistic praise that avoids comparison allows children to focus on the pleasure of mastering new skills and of contributing to the welfare of others. Parents who attune appropriately to the needs of all their children without partiality help them attune to the needs of siblings, peers and society at large in the same way. Such parents also help their children develop a positive sense of their potential.

In contrast, parents who consistently favor one child over another risk leaving the unfavored child feeling unloved, unwanted and unworthy of affection. Most parents would never wish to be cruel to a child—but favoritism can hurt very cruelly—and it is all too easy for parents to overlook.

For this reason it is important for parents to take inventory of their behaviors toward each of their children. Do we frequently find ourselves responding negatively toward a particular child; regularly using sarcasm or feeling irritated with him or her? Do we label one child as “the difficult one,” or perhaps find it less natural to show affection to one child in comparison to others? Do we notice ourselves overreacting toward any of our children more consistently than others? If these questions are difficult to answer with any certainty, it may be helpful to ask a close friend or relative whether they have noticed differences in the way we treat our children.

If we do suspect we have been less than equitable with our love and affection, the good news is that it is well within our power to change our attitude and the situation. One strategy might be to write down positive and negative traits of all our children. If we are unable to come up with an equal number of positive traits for each, it may be helpful to ask teachers, friends or relatives what they admire about the less favored child. It is also important to be honest about the shortcomings in the favored child, who is probably not any more perfect than the less favored child or children.

As we take a more balanced view of our children, also balancing the time we spend with each, it will eventually become natural for us to distribute our love and affection equally. The result will be well worth the effort. When each child is loved for the unique person he or she is, the stage is set for close sibling relationships and healthy family relationships in general. There is no greater gift parents can give to their children or to themselves.