The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

What Do Infants Teach Parents About Favoritism?

Infants have lots to teach parents about favoritism

"The worst kept secret in parenting is that many parents can and actually DO have favorite children," blogs Loraleechoate in blogher. Loraleechoate posts a picture of her favorite, her infant son who is resting quietly while sucking his thumb. She writes, "my life, my job, my baby boy....I have four boys and ALL OF THE HAVE BEEN MY FAVORITE AT THAT AGE." A second mother, Laura, blogging in Motherhood Later...Than Sooner, agrees that she, too, has a favorite child. Laura believes that favoritism is inevitable and believes it to be a natural response to "passive infant manipulation" that is particularly obvious when mothering infant twins. Laura writes, "When you have twins, people like to jokingly ask which one is your favorite. You can't answer them honestly or they would look at you like you're a cruel, callous mother. Because truth be told: you do have a favorite. You can't help it."

Yes, mothers do have favorites!The designation of favorite may be rotated among children or it may be attached to one child for a lifetime. Loralesschoate freely admits that she loves mothering babies and that when her children were infants, each was her favorite. Her joy is mirrored by others in her family: her older sons delight as they witness their baby brother's firsts - rolling over, standing in the crib, pulling himself up, or taking first steps. Her parents call specifically for regular reports on their infant grandson's progress, reserving hugs and kisses for themselves. Loralesschoate's infant isn't just her favorite - he is the favorite of everyone in the family!

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As Lorelesschoate favors the child who is an infant, other parents may favor children passing through other developmental stages. One parent, whose temperament is more cerebral, reports favoring her children when they pass through the preschooler stage and ask tons of questions. Another parent, still a college jock at heart, favors whichever child is playing competitive sports. A third parent delights in the intellectual curiosity of his college age children, favoring children passing through this stage. In these families, all children seem to feel loved all the time but revel when they have their turn at being the favorite.

The second blogger, Laura, accepts that her experiences of favoring one child over the other are rooted in her personal reactions to the differences between her twins, not their developmental stage. She reported that one twin weighed a pound less at birth and while his energies were directed at catching up physically, the bigger infant's energies were directed at achieving interpersonal milestones. The bigger brother engaged his mother sooner, winning her heart with his smiles. Even though Laura rationally understood that his smiling was "biology at work," designed to solidify the parent/child bond, when he smiled, she "fell all over (her)self trying to get to him like a 14-year-old girl in love." Laura acknowledged that her husband noted the favoritism she displayed; he challenged her for having and displaying a preference. Ultimately, the smaller son began to coo and won his turn at being the favorite. Temperamentally, Laura was vulnerable to favoring the infant who engaged her through smiles and not the one with greater physical needs.

Laura's experience highlights the truth that no two children are identical, even twins. And that even loving mothers are humans, with their own personalities, vulnerabilities and preferences. It is impossible for parents to not favor one child over another, even for brief time periods. Expressing favoritism is inevitable; its potential negative ramifications are modified when two parents communicate honestly, as did Laura and her husband.

Laura's experience also illustrates the reciprocal nature of the relationship between mother and infant, the behavior of one influencing the behavior of the other. A baby's smile captivates the mother, as it is intended, luring the mother into necessary caretaking. As the mother is more captivated, it is likely she will be a more loving, protective caretaker and invite the baby's cooing. And so the interaction continues. When a baby cries, the influence that a baby and mother have on one another is also evident: a calm mother is more likely to soothe her baby more quickly than is an anxious mother, and thus, the mother is more likely to feel better about her self. As the mother feels more affirmed, her loving feelings grow towards the child associated with the affirmation. The reciprocal dance of favoritism emerges -as the child makes the mother feel good, she develops special feelings towards that child. From those feelings, the she antes up special privileges or attention for that child.

Common to the blogging of both Loreleechoate and Laura is an appreciation that mothers can love all their children equally and still favor one over others. Love reflects an unqualified devotion and commitment that parents feel for all their children. It is not necessarily based on an interactive relationship whereas favoritism is. Favoritism reflects an enhanced status evolving, usually unconsciously, of an affirming relationship. Because each person is unique, parents as well as children, people can resonate more to some people than others. This is normal in all families, a dynamic to be accepted and talked about, not denied and hidden. Such openness is a prerequisite to healthy family functioning.

 

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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