Parents always say they don't have a favorite child, and that all of their kids are equal in their eyes. Is this true? Do parents harbor stronger feelings for one child over the others? If parents do have a favorite child in the family, what are the effects of favoritism, and how do families navigate this concept?
Why Some Kids Are Favored Over Others
The "whys" of favoritism are vast, and they vary from family to family. Some parents are drawn to one child over the others. Maybe this particular child has a pleasing disposition, or they have a lot in common with their parents, making bonding and connecting a simple and enjoyable process. Whatever the case, many families do have a favorite child. A study examining favoritism in families was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. The study looked at 384 families, and found that of those families, 74% of mothers and 70% of fathers showed some level of preferential treatment to one child over others.
Knowing that favoritism is heavily prominent, it is important to understand the negative impacts of favoritism on children and ways to mask favoritism should you be experiencing it.
Negative Effects of Being the Favorite Child
Being the favorite child might feel great to kids when they are little, but growing up with that heavy crown can have long-lasting, negative effects.
Living Life for Their Parents, Not Themselves
When the favorite kid wants to set out into the world and do something novel, brave, and all for themself, they will often think: what will my parents think of this? Will they approve? Be mad? Will I lose my favorite child status? Worries about such things can hinder their ability to try new things, take risks and grow into their own unique person. They tend to play it safe and play by their parents' rules, doing what they are expected to do, even when their hearts tell them otherwise.
Reliant on the World
When parents are at their child's every beck and call, they grow up to believe that the world will serve them quite readily, just as their parents did during their formative years. Favorite children may receive a rude awakening from the real world, which doesn't believe in free handouts.
By comparison, kids who grow up in the shadow of the family favorite develop some level of resistance and ability to fend for themselves. These attitudes benefit them in their adult years, as they already know how to take care of themselves and not wait for someone to do everything for them or approve of their choices.
Sense of Entitlement
When you live your younger years believing that you are the golden child, that attitude often translates into adulthood. Kids who live their lives thinking that they are the clear favorite and they can do no wrong, walk through life with a misconstrued sense of entitlement. This characteristic will likely negatively affect them as they emerge into the world and find themselves in environments where no one really cares that they were mom or dad's favorite kid.
Hiding Favoritism Within Your Family
Acknowledging that favoritism exists is the first thing to do. Knowing what to do with favoritism is the next and more challenging step.
Admit It to Yourself
You can't resolve favoritism until you recognize it, so do that first and foremost. Notice that you have varying feelings regarding each of your kids and remind yourself that this isn't all that uncommon. Favoring one child over the others doesn't mean you don't love all of your children, and you can do things to level out your attitudes towards your children.
Comparing leads to feelings of inadequacy. Most of the time, parents use comparison to make a point clear to a child, or with the hope of motivating them to strive for what parents consider "better." This often results in the opposite of the intention and makes the child being compared to a higher-achieving sibling feel less than.
Be a Parent, Not a Judge
You are their parent, not a presiding judge. When kids ask who is the fairest of them all, stay mum. Don't choose one kid's work or achievements over the other, because nothing good will come from pitting kids against each other. Tell kids asking which one of them is the better baker, better artist, or better student, that they are both wonderful, different, and unique in their own way, but equally gifted.
Relax on the Competitive Spirit
A bit of healthy competition is good for the spirit, parents often say, but too much competition within families forces favoritism, especially when one child is the obvious winner. Kids need their self-esteem built up and nurtured, not stifled and questioned. In families, everyone is a winner. If you are a competitive person and enjoy family competitions, then your kids better get used to hearing the words, "It's another tie." You can still play competitive games, but you don't have to have a champion.
Find Ways to Connect With Every One of Your Children
It might be easier to connect with one child over the others because the two of you share so much in common. If you recognize that this is the case, make sure to carve out some time to spend with each of your kids individually, doing what they like. Come to their turf and immerse yourself in their interests. They will love and respect you for it, and you will feel like a good mom or dad for extending yourself in such a way.
Keep Positive Praise Widespread and Consistent
Parents don't even notice when one kid is getting all the verbal praise. Well-behaved children receive loads of "good jobs" and "what a good kid you are" from parents, while mischievous ones get all the reprimands and verbal corrections. Be conscious of this. If you have kids that seem harder to praise, go out of your way to catch them being good. Keep the positive praise coming, keep it fair and keep it consistent.
Refrain From Putting Kids on Pedestals
None of the kids in your family should be standing on a higher pedestal than their siblings. Avoid saying things like:
- Your sister was reading at a fourth grade level in kindergarten.
- Your brother made the travel baseball team on his first try.
- All the other kids could tie their shoes by this age.
Making a child feel as if they are the under-performing black sheep is bad for their self-perception. It also makes the child on the other side of the comparison think that they are better than their sibling, which creates a dynamic that no family wants or needs.
Communicate With Kids When They Confront You
Your child has noticed that you spend more time with their sibling, and they worked up the nerve to confront you about it. Handling this type of situation needs to be done thoughtfully and with tact. Enter this conversation with grace, levelheadedness, and compassion.
- Lean on facts. Explain why one kid stays up later or another kid has a phone. Usually, the reasoning is pretty logical and rational.
- Acknowledge what they notice. Yes, you spend more time with a different child because you both love shopping. Remind them that they are welcome to come along anytime, and you would love that.
- Ask for their help. If a child is difficult to bond with because of behavior, ask them for help. Let them know the fights, arguments, and attitudes make it difficult to spend time together and that you are willing to help them work on that if they can meet you halfway.
- Assure, assure, assure. Remind them repeatedly that despite what they see or what family combinations work organically, everyone in the home is loved and valued equally.
Favoritism: Not Always One-Sided
Whenever you start to feel guilty about possibly showing one child more attention compared to the others, remember that they probably have a favorite parent, and it might not be you! Just like parents sometimes feel a pull to one child or another, kids also tend to feel more drawn to one parent or caregiver. In the end, all you can do is recognize when favoritism is creeping up, do what you can to temper it, and continue to do your very best to even the playing field.