This question, posed on Yahoo! Answers late last month, stimulated strong reader reaction. In my prior blog (Jan 5 2010) I concluded that it is normal for parents to have favorite children. Further I explored three considerations referenced in the Yahoo postings: First, no two children are identical making it impossible for any two children to be treated the same. Second, love and favoritism are different, love connoting tender feelings or strong affection, and favoritism preference. Third, favoritism can be fluid, freely flowing from child to child, or fixed, focusing primarily on one child. In this blog three additional issues raised in the December Yahoo! Answers posting are explored.

When is favoritism cruel?
Garrett's Mama 4-5-09 wrote, "Some parents do have favorite children, in my opinion that is completely cruel and unfair...." The existence of favoritism IS NOT cruel and unfair. It is normal, natural, and exists in every family.

Favoritism becomes cruel when consistently the same child is singled out for preferential treatment awarded because of parental bias. This child may be one of many or an only child. What is important is that the rewards experienced by the child reflect parental need to emotionally indulge the child and not the child's behavior.

When parents hold favorite children accountable to the same standards as other children, then the presence of cruelty is unlikely. But when any one child consistently gets freer use of the family car or credit card, or not have to help with the dinner dishes, everyone in the family is injured: favorite children are vulnerable to growing up with an overinflated sense of importance while unfavored children are vulnerable to growing up with feelings of anger and resentment. Both the favorite and unfavorite children are vulnerable to developing compromised emotional and moral lives, evidenced by addictions, lying, and difficulties with intimacy.

Children know what is true in a family, who is favored and who is not. To deny this truth undermines children's confidence in trusting their perceptions of reality. Bringing up children to question themselves, to not trust their views of reality is a form of cruelty. A blogger, responding anonymously to my last blog, wrote about the personal mental pain the having grown up trying to deny the truth of being the unfavored child.

Favoritism is most cruel when favorite children exploit their positions. This week Lois, a favorite child, wrote on Yahoo! Answers about colluding with her parent's emotional abuse of her younger brother and the devastating guilt she carried. "I think I just ruined by brothers life!?" she wrote. She continued by explaining that she was the favorite child and "Everyone knows it. My parents always tell him they wish he were more like me, or that he wasn't (their) child. They talk behind his back a lot. They say (he is) so stupid and retarded. So anyway my brother is a serious jerk to me." Lois further explained that to retaliate she provoked him into outrageous behaviors for which he got into serious trouble that maybe "ruined his life," while she was never held accountable. Lois lives with guilt and her brother with rage. Both suffer.

Is favoritism related to birth order?
Paje wrote that, "younger children always get the attention...(while) the 1st kid the parents ever had (grow up with the parents) uptight." In this simple straight forward posting, Paja captures the spirit of how children are selected as favorite: the child who makes the parents feel good about themselves is most likely to be awarded favorite child status. Frequently, this success may be an accident of birth and have little to do with the child per se.

In Paje's family, when the younger child was born, the parents were older and probably more confident in their parenting skills. They had greater psychological and financial resources. Thus, the younger child experienced the parents as calmer and more loving. Responding in kind to the parents, this child was probably more gratifying than the older child who mirrored back to mom and dad their unease, and possibly their unacknowledged resentment at being parents. In exchange for being gratifying, the youngest child became the favorite

In another posting, Indre wrote that her mother "treats my brother different than the rest of her children. He is the youngest and the only boy." Indre suggests that this child is favored.

Some families need to have someone to take care of. In these families, the youngest child commonly occupies the role as "the baby." Family members, colluding with mom's need to be a caretaker, reinforce that the youngest stays the baby and fill Mom's void as the other children mature and become more independent. In other families, by time the youngest comes along, parents become more lax in child rearing and collaborate less with each other. Consequently, the youngest grows up as the indulged favorite.

Other families require a caretaker to function effectively. Commonly oldest children fill this function and for doing so are awarded the status of favorite child. If the family's needs center inside the house, than the expectation often focus on the oldest daughter. She may be expected to help care for younger children or for a disabled mother. If the family requires its legacy to be carried on in the world outside the family, than the oldest son may be expected to fill this function - to be a "junior," join the family business, or carry on the family tradition by joining the military or priesthood. Again, in exchange for filling these vital roles, these oldest children - sons or daughters depending on the family needs - are usually the favorite.

Should parents have favorites?
Answered.OrAsked.xD writes, "they shouldn't." Heybuddy! writes, "yes. It is a dirty, dark secret that they will never admit." TwoHavles writes,"yes." Favoritism exists in all families. It is normal. No two children are identical and no two parents are identical. Parents have preferences for children of given ages, temperaments, abilities, or interests. What is important is that
• families be honest about the existence of favoritism. When feelings about favoritism are unspoken or denied, the wellbeing of the family is threatened.
• families talk about favoritism, maybe even joke or laugh about its existence. Without language and respectful dialogue, resentments and other discomforts build, emotionally jeopardizing the well being of all family members.
• all children in a family have the experience of being the favorite. When favoritism flows from one child to another, all children can benefit from its potential rewards and no one child is as vulnerable to its potential negative consequences.

About the Author

Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

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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