Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

The Favorite Child


A father struggles with his feelings of favoritism

Posted May 10, 2010

A courageous man anonymously commented on my blog, "Do Parents Have Favorite Children." Having maybe been an overlooked child or more likely an unfavored child, he and his brothers took the heat from their father for anything their sister did that was wrong. As adults, he and his brothers continue to be blamed when his "sister or any of her family members screw something up." Now, as a parent with his own son and daughter, Anonymous finds himself favoring his son over his daughter in spite of his best efforts to treat his children equally. He fears the truth of his favoritism will eventually become evident to his wife and children. Anonymous wants to be more like his mother whom he respects for making all her children feel favored. He is fearful of criticism, "already feeling like crap," but is asking for help in thinking through his predicament. Following is the letter that I want him to read:

                Dear Anonymous,

First, I want to reassure you that you are not alone. Everywhere I speak about favorite children, people come forth hating that they have a favorite child,especially knowing how awful it felt to them growing up in a family where the dynamics of favoritism were so hurtful. Having written your truth, you join this fraternity of honest and brave men and women, and you can begin on a path of feeling better about yourself.

Second, you are not your father. As I explain in greater detail  in my book, The Favorite Child, favoritism is a family dynamic which impacts the psychological well being of all family members. Your father was either unaware or indifferent to the hurt and pain his preferential treatment of your sister inflicted on you and your brothers (and maybe on your mother, as well). You are not unaware or indifferent to the potential negative consequences of your feelings.

Third, it is important to remember the basic principle of the favorite child complex: feelings of favoritism are normal. No two children are identical and no two children can evoke in you identical feelings. Favoritism inherently is not bad but becomes problematic when it consistently leads to preferential treatment: when the favorite child is not held accountable for her behavior and grows up not knowing there are negative consequences for unacceptable behaviors, the favorite child grows up feeling entitled.

Fourth, love and favoritism are different. You can love your son and daughter equally, dependably going to bat for each, willing to do what is necessary for both your children to feel secure in the world. That is different from having a particular resonance with your son. Maybe you and your son are hard-wired similarly, sharing a temperament or interests. When children feel secure in their parent's love, and when favoritism does not become problematic as described above, usually children are not psychologically injured if they are not the favored. I wonder if this is an aspect of what you felt emanating from your mother.

Now, to achieve your stated goal of being "the best father and husband you can be" requires that the information which I have provied help you to become less critical of yourself and more open to your own psychological growth. From the limited information that I have from your blog comments, I surmise that your growth will require you to consider more honestly your parents relationship with each other, and with you, as well as your relationship to your son.

It is striking that your parents parented so differently. From what you write, it doesn't seem that they were much of a team. I wonder why your mother wasn't more challenging of your father's destructive enactment of favoritism, and if she was, why she wasn't more successful. Did your father use your sister to fill a void in his life that you mother was unable or unwilling to fill? Regardless of what went on between your parents, your son is at risk to be your unconscious or silent partner, potentially getting in the way of your relationship with your wife. This would be destructive for him and harmful to the well being of all family members.

As you reflect on your relationships with your wife, son, and daughter, I suggest you think about the following:
1. Consider your wife your partner. Don't keep secrets from her. She probably senses your tension anyway. Let her know your feelings and fears regarding your preference for your son. If your wife can't support you as you work to resolve your demons, then, as a starting point, you and she may want to work on your relationship. As I elaborate in The Favorite Child, parents working as a trusting, open, collaborative team are the best insurance against the potential negative repercussions of favoritism.
2. Parents commonly favor one child during one stage and other children during other stages. Maybe it is easier to relate to your son at six than your daughter at four. The position of favorite child can be rotated from child to child as children evolve through different stages of growing up. So, don't panic. Because you favor your son now doesn't mean that he will always be the favorite.
3. When one child is loved but not favored, be more deliberate in expressing your love. Find an activity that is both special for the child and acceptable to you. Sometimes simple activities, like finger painting together or sharing a pint of ice cream, are more memorable than elaborate outings. What is important is for you and your child to have quality time together and for the child to know that you value your time with her.
4. Your feelings about your son probably warrant further thought. Do you favor him the way you wish your dad had favored you? What needs of yours does your son fill? Does he make you feel successful in particular ways or does he affirm you? In exchange for making you feel good, do you reward him in ways - like not holding him accountable for his behaviors - that observers would deem inappropriate?
5. You may want to seek professional consultation. Your concerns are among the most important a person can have -how you parent your child and partner with your wife. While including your spouse in your thinking is essential if her psychological growth is to complement yours, this exploration is not a substitute for the objectivity and guidance provided by a professional.

I hope my comments help you to begin to sort our your reactions to your daughter and son. I regularly read comments posted on this blog so let me know if I can further help you.

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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