The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

IS THERE A FAVORITE PARENT?

Children preferring one parent over the other

"You bet I'm the favorite parent," one woman said emphatically during a public reading The Favorite Child. "I'm always around for my kids. I help with homework, make their meals, and take them to practices. When they have something on their mind, it is me they talk to. They are just more comfortable around me than they are around Tom. I know that the kids love both of us but when it comes to favorites, it's me."

How do love and favoritism differ? Why can it be so important for one parent to feel favored? How can one parent's need to be favored impact on their relationship with their partner as well as the relationship of each parent with the children? These are some of the many questions that were stimulated by one parent's publicly disclosing her feelings about wanting to be the favorite parent. The energy this mother stoked in the room suggests that many parents echoed her thoughts and concerns.

Love and favoritism do differ. Love reflects tender feelings of affection, and usually implies strong loyalty or unquestioned devotion. The Wall Street Journal recently featured a story articulating this loyalty and devotion when writing about adult children caring for aging parents. As adults, these children believed that caring for aging parents is what loving children do, and to do so, these children often had to put aside their tension, resentment, and animosity that stemmed from feelings of having been overlooked children when growing up.

Children can love both parents and still favor one over the other. Favorite implies a preference, a stronger pull towards one person rather than another. People, usually aware of their preferences, are often uncomfortable in acknowledging them. The discomfort can be so profound that to mute the choice people may incorrectly employ the word "love" rather than "favorite." This behavior is often observed in children who say they love one parent more than the other when most likely the children are expressing a preference for one parent. Children tend to prefer the parent who lets them stay up later, lets them go out before completing homework, or doesn't insist that clothes be picked up off the floor. Children manipulatively use the lure of being the favorite parent or threat of not being the favorite parent. The challenge for parents is to not be manipulated!

The parent who children prefer reflect a moment in time or the time of life, or be fixed to one parent for most of a lifetime. Children may momentarily favor the parent who is more permissive, or during a stage of life, the parent who the child identifies as most supportive of their athletic, artistic, or intellectual interests. The desire of some parents to be the preferred parent can impede the quality of their parenting. For example, rather than remain firm when telling young drivers that they can't drive on a rainy night, parents who do not want to be unfavored may be more vulnerable to backing down.

It is normal to want to be chosen or selected, but to be the favorite parent does not necessarily equate with being the competent parent. It is the responsibility of adults to provide an atmosphere in which children can mature into physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually healthy adults. Such an environment requires boundaries, structure, rules, and expectations, which often children do not like. Children grow by coming up against these standards and learning to accommodate to their requirements. In the process, children often do not like the adult who they associate with their displeasure. The needs that adults have to be the favored parent can undermine their abilities to provide the tension in their children's lives that is necessary for their healthy growth.

Some parents are aware of their need to be favored and others are not. Parents in the midst of stressful divorces can find themselves vying to be the preferred parent. In their quest, they often compromise their children's best interests. For example, when one divorced father picked up his five-year-old son to take him to his home, the first stop was the toy store. This practice continued for several years. The father indicated that he wanted his son to prefer being with him and coming to his home rather than being with his mother at her home. The father believed that the ten-dollar price limit per toy would teach his that the size of the gift mattered. Overtime, what the son talked about was his outrage that his father limited him to ten-dollars at toy store.

The desire to be deemed the favorite parent is often more subtle. Stay-at-home moms sometimes resent accolades that their husbands receive from their children, the wives believing that that their husbands receive accolades in their professional lives and accolades at home should be reserved for them. A stay-at-home father recently reflected on his resentment when, over the weekend, their daughter chose to be with her mother rather than him. "My days are all built around her. I'm only coaching her softball team because she wouldn't have made the cut unless I was the coach. And, Saturday, she chose to be with her mother and not practice hitting with me. I can't believe that she wouldn't prefer being with me," he said incredulously.

While the desire to be chosen, to be preferred over someone else, is normal, if left unchecked, the negative repercussions to the parent/child relationship can be profound. To secure their status, parents are vulnerable to making decisions that make children feel good rather than providing an environment necessary for their children's growth. To reduce this likelihood, it is necessary that
• Parents be honest with themselves, acknowledging their own needs to be the favorite parent.
• Parents grow in understanding that it is not the role of children to affirm the adult.
• Parents be receptive to feedback from their partner or best friend, as they observe the misalliance between parent and child.

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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