Every child is different and every parent resonates differently to each child. Having a favorite child is inevitable. Yet, the suggestion that one child is favored over others commonly makes parents defensive. Why? Because parents confuse love and favoritism; they fear that they have done something wrong that will cause irreparable harm; they don't want to parent as their parents or grandparents did.
How are favoritism and love different?
Love connotes tender feelings and strong affection that is usually accompanied by loyalty and devotion. Love lasts a lifetime, and healthy love is unconditional. The expression of love evolves as people grow and change. Parents express love to newborns by holding them close to their chest, which would be an inappropriate expression of love for adolescents. Parents may go to bat with teachers or coaches whom they believe have treated their elementary school-aged children unfairly, but this expression of love would be inappropriate for college-aged students. Loving parents embrace all their children and are devoted to their growth, safety, health, and wellbeing. In return, parents do not expect anything back from their children but to be loved by them.
In contrast, favoritism is conditioned on children filling a need or void in their parents' lives, or making parents feel good about themselves. The better children make parents feel, the more likely children are to be favored and win the ultimate reward - knowing that they are the most special child. With this reward, children develop feelings of confidence and power. This parent and child interaction may be unconscious or conscious. For example, when children are born with characteristics that remind the parent of loving grandparents, parents may unconsciously ascribe to these children the endearing characteristics of the beloved relatives. Alternatively, many parents are conscious of preferring children who, by nature, are cooperative rather than their siblings who, by nature, are more combative. Sometimes children earn the status of favorite child, as when a parent delight in a child's having worked hard to achieve a goal. Other times the status is not earned, is an accident of birth, as when a child is favored because of their sex or birth order.
While love lasts a lifetime, favoritism may or may not. Ideally, the status of favorite child rotates among children. Sometimes the status may be short-lived lasting for only hours, a few days, or months. In other families, one child may secure the position of favorite child for a lifetime.
The unconditional nature of love offers children security; it does not earn them special privileges. In contrast, favoritism usually does not offer children security but commonly the position earns them special privileges. In exchange for making parents feel good about themselves, favorite children are more likely to get what they want, growing up feeling entitled. Favorite children often are not held accountable for their behaviors, with minimal or inconsistent consequences. The less favoritism rotates among children in families the more likely favorite children are to grow up feeling the potential benefits of confidence and risks of believing that they are entitled and the rules don't apply to them.
Does favoritism cause irreparable harm?
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. When the favorite child status is rotated among children, all children are likely to feel the security of their parents' love and not feel damaging resentment when other siblings are favored. In contrast, when one child exclusively holds the position of favorite, all children in the family, including the favored, are more vulnerable to psychological injury. In this scenario, overlooked children are most likely to grow unscathed.
Children identified by parents to be the most gratifying are favored. Children left more to their own devices are overlooked. Children who are on the receiving end of parental hostility or resentment are unfavored. For example, in my book, The Favorite Child, I describe a family in which all three daughters were exceptionally bright, but one daughter carried their parents' hope for an MIT scholarship. Other than schoolwork, nothing was expected of this sister. Other siblings were expected to pick up her chores, do her laundry, and change her bed sheets. These siblings grew up feeling unfavored, and they were filled with resentment and animosity. The favorite sister struggled with unbearable guilt and wanted loving relationships with her sisters. Simultaneously, she lived with the pressure to fulfill her parents' expectations and did not want to disappoint them. In this family, all children psychologically suffered by the enactment of favoritism.
Recently, a group of students at Stanford University debated with parents (not their own) the existence of favoritism in families. The students agreed that favoritism existed in all their families and that they knew instinctively which siblings were favored. But, because these students felt secure in their parents' love, they felt no resentment and easily accepted their family dynamics.
Not wanting to repeat our parents' mistakes
Parents learn about parenting from their parents, sometimes wanting to replicate how they were brought up and other times wanting to parent differently. Either way, the behavior of adult children is grounded in the past; their reactions to present experiences are colored by former experiences, some to be emulated and others rejected.
When adult children are critical of their parents' behaviors, they are threatened by inferences that they are parenting as their parents did. This unease contributes to their defensiveness, further undermining the caliber of the parenting. During a recent reading on The Favorite Child one parent commented that he and his wife tried to treat their children equally but that their son, by nature, was smooth, and it was harder to enforce boundaries with him. This father was concerned that their son was growing up believing that rules did not apply to him. His wife, upset, lashed out, "How dare you accuse me of parenting like my mother." Apparently, her resentment of her mother's relationship with her brother interfered with her ability to appreciate the truth and evenhandedness of her husband's remarks.
Recently a man wrote me anonymously expressing his guilt at favoring his son over his daughter. His father had favored his sister; he and his brother "took the heat for anything (she) did that was wrong." As an adult, this man suffered, hating that, like his father, he favored one child. Favoring one child, as his father had, did not make him like his father. His father was either unaware or indifferent to the hurt and pain his preferential treatment of his daughter inflicted on his sons. Unlike his father, this man was thoughtful about the potential negative consequences of favoring one child over another and enlisted his wife's loving support to help him treat both children fairly.
When parents are defensiveness about favoring one child over others, the potential dangers of favoritism are increased. Being closed to hearing the observations of those we trust is a warning flag signaling possible harm. Unaware of what words and actions communicate, it is likely that they convey what is natural - attitudes learned when growing up. Sometimes this is desired and sometimes it isn't.
To help prevent scars caused by favoritism in a family
1. Assume that we are often unaware of what our behaviors conveys to our children;
2. Become more curious about what we communicate;
3. Be receptive to the observations of those we trust.