The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

Do Parents Have Favorite Children?

Parents respond passionately when asked if they have favorite children.

This week Accisej5 posed the following question on Yahoo! Answers: "Do Parents have favorite children?" Accisej5 elaborated by writing "I've always wondered about this. My parents swear they love all four of us the same, but I wonder if they have certain special feelings towards one or two of us. Do you have a ‘favorite' child or feel more connected to one than another?" The straightforward answers given by the respondents stimulate important questions regarding the complexities of family dynamics originating from favoritism.

Can children be treated equally?
Georgia wrote, "HA no matter what parents say about loving their kids equally..it's just BS....I think it depends on the parent-child relationship & the different hobbies or interests they share that may strengthen their bond to a point where they favor one child over another. I don't think parents do it purposely, but it happens."

Georgia's comments focus attention on three important considerations: loving children equally, similarities between parents and children, and parental intention. First, parents can't love kids equally because no two children are identical. Each child's individual personality fosters loving that is unique to him or her. Second, so much of who we are is hard-wired, and some children are born looking and acting more like one parent than the other. These similarities invite a natural attraction (if we like ourselves) or repulsion (if we don't like ourselves) between parent and child. This can translate into the child's being the parent's favored or unfavored child. Third, the favoritism parents feel for one child over another is usually unconscious, not deliberate. Most parents do not set out to have a favorite - it just evolves.

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How do love and favoritism differ?
ilovepho wrote, "I love both of my children very much. I would never say I love one more than the other because I don't. I will admit that one child is much easier than the other one however she isn't my favourite for that reason, she is just easier going and much more relaxed. I love how different they are and love them both for who they are."

Love and favoritism differ. ilovepho writes about love, not favoritism. Love connotes tender feelings and strong affection usually accompanied by loyalty and devotion. In contrast, favoritism implies choosing or preferring one person over another. Parents may love all their children, as ilovepho does, and at certain times, prefer or favor one over others. For example, after a trying day at work and a slow drive home in pouring rain, it is reasonable to expect that ilovepho would favor her easier going child than the one causing ruckus. What is critical is that there be occasions when ilovepho favors her more challenging child and that this child trusts the feelings of being favored as legitimate.

Can who's the favorite change?
Ohsooocu acknowledges that her response was influenced by its proximity to Christmas. "They came home for a visit," she writes. "(T)hree were spoiled rude assholes for the second year in a row and one was sweet...three made me sorry I had children and question if I wasted by life sacrificing for them and one makes it all worth it...when they were younger, no, no favorites and I still love them all..I cried myself to sleep that night, some kids are a source of pain while others bring joy. I think it happens after they are older tho."

Who's the favorite can change, and in families nurturing mentally healthy children, it does change. The favorite child can change hourly or daily, monthly or yearly. Adults, based on their own personalities, have preferences for parenting children with particular interests or at different developmental stages. Commonly, adults prefer meeting the needs of children at particular ages, such as those of dependent infants, curious toddlers, compliant middle school children, defiant adolescents, or rebellious young adults. Children have their turn at being the favorite child as they pass through the stage preferred by their parents.

Many more factors influence the fluidity of favoritism among siblings. Thus, without more information it is impossible to have greater clarity regarding why Ohsooocu experienced her relationship to her children when they were younger more positively than she does now; or why, in the moment, her feelings for one child differ dramatically from the other three.

In this blog, three principles regarding favoritism were explored: Can children be treated equally? How do love and favoritism differ? Can who's the favorite change? In the next blog, three other principles will be discussed: When is favoritism cruel? Is favoritism related to birth order? Should parents have favorites?

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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