"I don't think parents should worry about ‘having' a favorite, but rather about the ‘how' of parenting a favorite," writes Barbara on the blog Life 360.

This sentiment reflects an important principle underlying the favorite child complex. Favoritism is normal, occurring in every family - traditional and nontraditional, multiple children and only children. When parents deny its existence, they are less able to pay attention to the more important concern - how favoritism is conveyed. The less aware parents are of their predilections, the more defended they are to their children's perceptions of how issues of favoritism impact them. These parents are more vulnerable to behaving in ways that contribute to the corruption to the favorite child and to hurting those not favored.

While many parents bristle at the suggestion that they prefer one child to another, commonly they admit to having a stronger bond with a given child. Other parents insist they don't have a favorite but acknowledge that on a given evening, they prefer being with the child who is more easy-going or cooperative or less whiny. One mother writes, "Of course I relate better to my child who is most like me. It is just easier for me to understand her but that doesn't mean that I have a favorite." These parents delude themselves. In the moment that they feel a stronger attachment for one child or preference for another they do have a favorite.

Personal feelings generated by the favorite child complex can last a lifetime. The breathe and depth of these reactions are influenced by how favoritism is enacted:
• whether the designation of favorite is assigned to one person or rotates among all family members;
• whether the rewards of being favored convey entitlement and permit minimal standards of accountability;
• whether each family member feels loved, valued, and validated;
• whether the emerging identity of the favorite child is thwarted by the powerful parent; and
• whether issues and feelings emerging from favoritism are talked about openly.

Every person wants to be chosen, and in families, all members want to be special - to know they are just a little bit more desired than everyone else. When favoritism is rotated from child to child, it is likely that no family member will be marred by dynamics emerging from favoritism. Children know they will have their turn to be favored, that the privilege of the position is to be shared. Children acknowledge that given parents have closer ties with siblings at given ages, maybe one parent favoring toddlers while another favors adolescents. In other families the birthday child may be celebrated for weeks. Some mothers, when feeling beleaguered, may favor children who are more self-sufficient or the ones with a sense of humor, and at other times, favor children more willing to accept their help. Growing up in families where favorite child status changes lets children appreciate being favored while carrying little resentment when it isn't their turn.

Children appreciate the uniqueness of the different relationships in the family, understanding that no two relationships are the same. They easily accept that the athletic parent and sibling have a unique bond; or the specialness that may exist between a parent and difficult sibling. "My mother could calm brother unlike anyone in the world. Otherwise, he was likely to erupt," commented one adult woman. "What they had was something special, and the whole family was better off for it. While I knew I wasn't my mother's favorite, that he was, my mother was amazing. I know she loved me and appreciated me. I never felt neglected or overlooked."

When favoritism does not rotate among siblings it is more likely that resentment among siblings and between siblings and parents emerges. In these families, the rewards of being the favorite tend to be lopsided, with those not favored building resentment over time. As I elaborate in my book, The Favorite Child, when one child is chosen and other children feel overlooked or pushed aside, their longing morphs in to resentment, not unlike the story of Joseph as described in the bible.

Because a given child is favored does not mean that child is necessarily indulged. In some families oldest children are expected to take over family businesses, in part, to provide for their siblings. While these children are favored, more may be expected of them. In commenting on her older brother's status in the family, one woman reflected, "Yes, his relationship with our parents was special, but so much more was expected of him. It is like he was always in training to take care of the family - to run the business and to take care of us. He never treated us like he felt entitled to preferential treatment but rather seemed to feel he had to work harder to deserve his special place in our parents' hearts."

This experience differs from that of favorite children who, by virtue of their status, grow up believing that rules don't apply to them, that they are entitled to what they want. In Jenny Sanford's autobiography, Staying True, she recollects that when first meeting the siblings of her ex-husband, Governor Mark Sanford, they commented about his distorted sense of entitlement. This reflected their views of his favored relationship with their mother. In another case, Timothy, responded to an earlier posting I wrote on the disadvantages of being favored. He commented that when it came to his sister, who was their father's favorite, there were no rules, but when it came to him, the rules were unwavering. "Even now, as adults," he wrote, "my sister believes she can do what she wants, when she wants, that rules don't apply to her...only to me. Even though my life now is much better than hers, I still resent her and can't get over my anger at my father." A third person, a client of mine who was the favorite child in her family, reported her anguish regarding her estrangement from her siblings: "I know that my parents favored me; unlike my sisters, I had no chores around the house and no curfew. I was free to do exactly what I wanted. My only job was to do well in school. As kids, I thought I had a good deal, but now, I long for things to be better between my sisters and me."

In families where favorite children grow up playing by the same rules as everyone else, it is less likely that unfavored siblings feel animosity towards the favorite. When this is not the case and favored siblings grow up feeling entitled to what they want when they want it, it is more likely that the tension created between siblings lasts a lifetime.

Individuals who feel loved, valued, and validated by their parents are less likely to be negatively effected if they are not favored. During a recent forum at Stanford University, undergraduates agreed that there were favorite children in their families and those students who felt loved and valued by their parents were not disturbed if they were not the favorite. As one student commented, "My mom and my sister are like two peas in a pod. They see everything the same way. There is something special between them. Of course Mom prefers being with her and favors her. But, I have no doubt how much mom loves me. She was my cheerleader. I wouldn't have achieved all that I did without her commitment."

At a presentation about favoritism in families, one father acknowledged that as a kid, he was difficult, and his cooperative brother was their father's favorite. As an adult, this man appreciated his father's efforts in spending quality time with him. "My father worked hard to let me know that he loved me, even if I was difficult. My dad hated baseball but I loved it. Yet, he took me - just me - regularly to games. How I relished those outings. I still get teary-eyed when remembering them. I know taking me was hard for him. He found baseball boring and I wasn't easy to be with. Yet, he took me because he knew I wanted to go. He loved me. Knowing that, it doesn't matter that he favored my brother over me."

The advantages are significant of being the favorite child. These children grow up experiencing the confidence gleaned from having won the quintessential contest -being favored more than anyone else in the family. With this confidence comes a can do it attitude: no challenge seems imposing. Every president since Franklin Roosevelt was his mother's favorite!

The disadvantages of being favored can be significant as well. Many favorite children grow up feeling entitled to having what they want when they want it, and they do not expect negative consequences for their behaviors. Their parents are vulnerable to not holding them accountable to the same standards as the nonfavorite children. When Bill Clinton was president, people wondered why he jeopardized his career by having the relationship that he did with Monica Lewinsky. The answer is simple: he was his mother's favorite son. In exchange for maintaining this relationship with her, he grew up feeling entitled to what he wanted and he did not expect that there would be consequences for his behavior.

An important challenge for parents is to hold favorite children accountable to the same standards as other children. In so doing, favorite children can grow up with more advantages bestowed from the position and fewer disadvantages.

Favoritism exists in families. When the perceptions of each family member that are generated by favoritism can be openly expressed and appreciated, children are less likely to be scarred by its dynamics. A mother told me about her five year old son's desire for a blue truck one Christmas. She could not find one sophisticated enough for his age so she bought him a green truck with remote control, complete with lights that turned off and on. She bought a blue truck for his younger brother, thinking she was doing a good deed since the younger brother grabbed at his older brother's toys. On Christmas morning, the older brother was enraged, shouting out, " I wanted a blue truck. He is your favorite. He gets what I wanted." With that, the child stormed from the room. The mother, of course, wanted to deny that the younger child was her favorite. She wanted to explain how hard she had looked for a blue truck appropriate for his age. She thought he wouldn't want a baby truck. But, her five year old would have none of her logic. All she could do was acknowledge his experience that she had disappointed him, hold him, and love him.

As children get older the inclination is strong to ameliorate hurt feelings generated by favoritism with words. But, in truth, perceptions are in the eyes of the beholder. Ultimately, listening to, acknowledging, and striving to understand the reactions of family members to favoritism is the best method to insure healthy families. Truth may be conveyed through humor and teasing, as children who taunt one another with "You are the favorite"; or through matter-of-fact pronouncements, as children who simply state, "I am mommy's favorite and John is daddy's." The innocent repartee within families can allow discussion of the issues and can teach parents important lessons in the HOW of favoritism.

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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