The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

Mom Liked You Best

Whether true or false, it matters.

"Why Mom Liked You Best"—emblazoned across the cover of Time magazine (October 3, 2011). Moms are quick to deny they love anyone best. We've all heard the refrain, "I love all my kids equally." But, children know the truth. They get the subtle, and not so subtle, message. They know favoritism exists, that at any moment in time Mom might choose one child over another. It's impossible for it to be otherwise. Every child is different and every parent is different, relating to each other uniquely. This idiosyncratic relationship leads to preferences. Having a favorite and wanting to be the one chosen as the favorite—either Mom's or Dad's—is a normal feeling, reaction, and wish.

Where favoritism originates from within the parent is usually straight- forward: children are rewarded with the status of favorite for making parents feel good, competent, or successful; or for filling a void in their lives. In writing for TIME, Jeffrey Kluger points to birth order as the primary factor contributing to the selection of favorite. He claims that the "biologically narcissistic act of replicating themselves" tilts the selection process in favor of the oldest who is usually the biggest and healthiest offspring, and thus, is the most likely to have the genes necessary to insure strong progeny. Kluger acknowledges that sometimes the youngest, weakest, or most vulnerable is the favorite, especially for moms whose identities are defined as caretakers.

Birth order is one of many factors contributing to the selection of favorite. Parental narcissism expresses itself in other ways. For some parents, the child who is most like them physically, athletically, or academically is prized; for other parents, the child who is least like them, who doesn't reflect those traits that parents least like about themselves, is coveted. Ultimately favorite children are those who make parents feel most competent and most successful, who best reflect on the parents.

Wanting to look good in the world, to be special, drives behavior. How far parents go to achieve this end in their relationship with their children influences whether the experience of being the favorite child is psychologically healthy or potentially destructive. A father favors his son who is a jock, the football, basketball or baseball star. The father feels proud as he sits in the bleachers, surrounded by people cheering his son's basket or winning catch. Maybe this father's athletic achievements were the high points of his life, and his son's successes rekindle his pleasure. Or, maybe this father carries pain of having not made a sports team throughout his youth, and this son's success is healing for the father. Alternatively, maybe this father has difficulty relating to his children and sports, with this child, offer a venue. While this father's pride for his son's basket or winning catch may be appropriate, it becomes inappropriate when the father's bragging rights becomes central to his joy.

What matters ultimately is not IF this child is favored by his father for athletic success but whether he feels compelled to play sports FOR his father. And if he quits competitive sports, how will his relationship with his father be altered? Will he lose his favored child status, or worse, will he become unfavored? To the degree that this son continues to play sports to please his father and to maintain favorite child status, this father/son relationship is potentially destructive to the son's psychological health. The psychological boundaries between this father and son inhibit the child's ability to develop his own ego and personality.

When children fill their parents needs or make them feel good about themselves, they are likely to be rewarded by the parents. How children are rewarded dramatically impacts their psychological development. For example, when first-born sons are favored and earmarked to inherit family businesses, they may be brought up to feel ENTITLED to their birthright or to feel RESPONSIBLE for their younger siblings. When entitlement reigns, these sons are vulnerable to growing up believing that there is one set of rules for themselves and another, usually more severe, for their siblings. As these favorite sons mature, this belief system is likely to translate to relationships—personal and professional—outside of the family. The perception that rules apply to everyone else but don't apply to "me" warps an understanding of consequences and accountability for behavior. For these sons, healthy relationships with siblings and colleagues are likely to be thwarted. These men are vulnerable to addictions (drinking, drugs, sex) or moral corruption.

Conversely, first-born sons who grow up accepting the responsibility that comes with being the oldest are less likely to have strained relationships with their siblings and as they grow older, with friends and colleagues. These men are more likely to grow up accepting expectations that they marshal the family business for the good of all siblings and not exploit the business for their self-gain. If a separate set of rules apply to these anointed sons, the rules are likely to be harder and more demanding.

As the younger sibling to an oldest who inherited the family business expressed, "My oldest brother didn't really inherit my parent's business. He inherited the responsibility of running the business. As kids growing up, my sister and I would often feel bad for Tommy. As the favorite child, he felt such pressure to be perfect, to excel at everything he did. Nothing he did escaped our parent's attention. No detail too small. My sister and I were perfectly happy to fly under the radar screen. But Tommy didn't seem to mind the pressure to live up to my parent's high expectation. As the favorite, he had more privileges which, as kids, we would whine about but we knew he deserved them."

When parents hear the refrain, "Mom loves you best,"
DON'T rush to deny it. It may be true. At least in that moment, it is the perceptions of the child.
DON'T berate yourself as a bad parent. All parents have favorites. What matters is if the favorite child is brought up feeling entitled or responsible.
DO appreciate your children's needs to express themselves. A willingness to listen and to grapple with their truth is the cornerstone to healthy parent/child relationships.

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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