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Playing Favorites

by on Aug.31, 2010, under Attachment, Parenting, Relationships

“Mother always liked you best” claimed Tommy Smothers of the old comedy duo of the 60’s and 70’s, The Smothers Brothers.  They were comedians, but that gag struck a chord, as the audience laughed and cried at the same time.

“Who do you love the most?”  No matter how it comes out, every child who has a sibling wonders and worries about which child plays the starring role in his parent’s heart.

Favorites are tricky business, and the topic has a lot of press recently. In both a study published in April 2010 in the Journal or Marriage and the Family and in a new book, The Favorite Child, the issue is addressed. They conclude that both the child who is perceived as the favorite and the one who is not can suffer.  The perceived favored child is vulnerable to developing unhealthy personality traits, including the need to please, (be it the parent, the teacher, or the boss), and a sense of entitlement. He can also feel tremendous guilt for being the one chosen as the favorite.

The unfavored child can work overtime trying to please the adults in his life, desperate to make it to the favored son status anywhere he can. He works to the exclusion of experiencing true enjoyment, intimate relationships, and more. And sometimes this child decides he might as well excel at being “bad” since he’ll never be the “good” one. That role is already filled.

Let’s face it. Every parent who has more than one child actually does favor one child over the other(s) at some point, if only for a fleeting moment. Admitting that, however, generates oceans of guilt, as everyone knows it’s downright illegal!  What’s a parent to do?

Perhaps the first step is accepting that there will be days and times, long periods and short, that you do have a favorite child. But that does not mean you love that child more. It means that on that day, at that time, that child is in the pole position. Perhaps he was more cooperative; maybe he woke up on the right side of the bed; maybe he was the child who remembered to call you, who carried in the groceries, who hung up his jacket. But he is only the favorite at that moment.  Then your other child is the life of the party at the dinner table. You marvel at his sense of humor; you admire his powers of observations. You fall in love, and today he is your favorite. In most families, children float in and out of the favored son status

Here are a few more suggestions for avoiding pitfalls of playing favorites

  • Actively look for the characteristics that make each of your children different. Call them out, appreciate them,  and share them with the world.
  • Let your child hear you talking about him positively and proudly, not for something he accomplished but for something he is.
  • Make time to spend with each child alone regularly, (Yes, even if you have 5 children!), and nurture the special relationship you have with each.
  • Work hard to cultivate one of each of your child’s separate interests. If he loves baseball, ask him to explain the box scores to you. If she loves princesses, ask her to introduce you to each one and learn their names!
  • Be careful not to pigeon hole your child. He is the artist; she is the athlete. Doing so can actually undermine the child’s desire to give something new a try.  After all, it isn’t his role.
  • Do not ever hold one child up to the other. “Why can’t you just get your homework done like your brother does?”  Speak to him about him only.
  • When you hear your children squabbling, take pains not to call out one child’s name, even if you know he is the perpetrator. Instead of saying, “Seymour, what are you doing?” try “What’s going on in there, boys?”
  • Stop trying to make life “fair” for each child. Most parents confuse “fair” with “equal.”  It will never be fair enough for your children, and someone will be perceived as the one you like best because he got new shoes. Fair means giving each child what he needs at the moment. Preach it and practice it.
  • When your child asks you whom you love the most, put on your most twinkly smile and say “You are my most favorite Jessie in the whole world!”
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9 Comments for this entry

  • Mo Russell

    we raised 4 kids, 2 boys and 2 girls. we tried to not only NOT favor anyone over another, we tried to keep things personal, fair, but not always equal. For example, if I took one of the kids camping, I tried to camp with the others also IF they liked camping. Often it was a variety of things. My sister had two boys close together, and she insisted that we could not invite the older one to spend the weekend without the younger one. I saw some possible issues with that. I camped with my kids alot, but only once did I take them together. Private time was very important to me and to them as well.

  • Jill K

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I never thought I would love my 2nd as much as my first child. Boy, was I wrong.

    You hit it right on target. It’s not so much “loving” one child more than the other, it’s often “appreciating” or “thankful” for one child sometimes more than the other when one is being so much easier and the other is being difficult. It’s not loving one more than the other, but loving who they each are individually and not comparing them.

    Thanks for the good reminder of tips!

  • Natalie

    Interesting, but I wobnder if someone could clairify:
    I feel that suggestion #1 and suggestion #5 conflict with each other.
    Also, I have seen #2 addressed before with opposite advice – it seems we should praise our kids for acts, not characteristics, as the latter could lead to a sense of entitlement, arrogance ETC. – getting praise without earning it.

  • Betsy

    Let me clarify. #1 and #5 do not conflict, as I am speaking of charactistics, not talents. Like, “You really worked hard on that project…that is something that is special about you.” I do not mean, “You are the artist in our family.” I said to “call them out” for the characteristics. If you have read my books, you know I feel strongly that we “praise” children for an act, a behavior, to encourage more of the same. And praise begins with the word “you” and not “I.” Thanks for your careful reading and comments. BBB

  • Narcissism

    Just love commenting for the sake of it. It makes whoever posted the article feel like someone cares… and we do!

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  • Del

    My mother in law says every child should have equal presents or whatever. It even go as far as dollars spent on each child. I hate this even stevens parenting. What you are saying is that you give as what they need or like at the moment? I am reading Tell Me What To Say right now.

  • liz

    Life is not fair. It seems now in schools thiers no losers, they all win. How does this affect them when they are graduated and go for jobs.

  • Betsy BB

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Liz. We sure do set our kids up for disappointment and worse when we don’t allow them to experience losing early on.

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