Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

The Favorite Child

Caution: Parental Pride Turns Dangerous

Parenting lessons learned from Tiger's tragic fall

Posted Dec 21, 2009

Two African American men, who were standing behind me in line waiting to be seated at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in a small Georgia town, started bragging to me about their sons. These men had just watched their sons play outstanding ball in a championship high school football game, their sons' skills essential in helping the team secure victory. While clearly proud of their sons, these fathers were fearful of their own exuberance: "We don't want to be like Earl Woods (the father of Tiger Woods)," one man said to me. "Look at Tiger. His father praised him so much. He was high on the pedestal. When you are that high up, there is only one-way to go. Down!" he exclaimed. "I don't want to put my son in that position."
"Yea," the other father chimed in. "Earl didn't know what was true. Who ever heard of a nine month old walking well enough to swing a club (see prior blog, "A Tiger Trapped," December 7). My son is a football star and I'm so proud of him. But, I worry that I put too much pressure on him to make every play. I don't want him to end up like Tiger - with a big head, thinking he can get away with anything."
These men, working hand-to-mouth as laborers, knew that football scholarships would insure their sons' educations. Of equal importance to them was their sons emotional stability and moral character. They grasped that Tiger's achievements were important to his father Earl Woods, and they struggled with NOT wanting their sons achievements to be burdened by their dreams and aspirations.
These two wise fathers were grappling with issues underlying the dynamics of healthy favoritism. They wanted to encourage their sons to succeed, to be outstanding athletes. But, they also wanted their sons to be responsible men, not heroes feeling entitled to whatever they wanted and believing that rules did not apply to them. These fathers were concerned that their pride for their sons would color their treatment of them, and they wanted to hold these young football stars accountable to the same standards as their other children.
All parents probably experience special feelings for given children, especially when children bring parents pride or live out their parents' dreams. In these moments, parents are vulnerable to indulging the preferred child, giving them what they want while not holding them accountable for given behaviors.
Parents want to maximize their children' potential for success while minimizing the risks that their successes breed arrogance and entitlement. The following tips help achieve these goals:
1) During adolescence and young adulthood, children strive to establish identities separate and distinct from their parents. Consistent with this objective, children's goals must have personal meaning that is separate and distinct from wanting to please their parents.
2) No two children are identical and no two parents are identical. It is natural that at any given moment, a particular parent may favor a particular child. Ideally, all children in the family will have their turn at being the favorite.
3) Feeling pride for children feeds their self-confidence, but too much pride can give children an over-inflated sense of themselves. This unrealistic sense of self ultimately makes the child vulnerable to a tragic fall evidenced by marital discord, addiction, or lapses in moral judgments.
4) Talk openly with spouses or best friends about your vulnerability to favoring a given children and how this favoritism is expressed. Having another set of observing eyes, those of someone trusted, helps to counter inappropriate expressions of favoritism.
Wisdom emerged from the struggles of the two men that I met by chance while waiting to be seated at a restaurant. Their musings with me permitted articulation of how pride fuels unhealthy 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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