The favorite child. Quick. Without thinking about it, what's your gut reaction to those three words?
A. Yes, that was me growing up (insert here a knowing wink to other favorite children of the world and pat yourself on the back).
B. No, that was my sibling and I'm just now getting over it, but hey, thanks for bringing that up.
C. Wait, favoritism? Are you suggesting I'm doing this to my own children? I get along with one of my children a little better than the other, but I never say so out loud or act as though I like someone more. There is no way they know.
No matter who you are in this scenario, experts say favoritism in families is very common.
"We all have our preferences and proclivities. We're human, and we're drawn to some people more than others and it's not a horrible thing," said Dr. Martha Edwards, director of the Ackerman Institute's Center for the Developing Child and Family.
Dr. Ellen Libby, who wrote "The Favorite Child," argued in a blog post on HuffPost that favoritism is alive and well in every family. Parenting.com even listed favoring a child as one of its "Top Ten Mom Confessions" last month, when 14 percent of respondents were willing to admit to it. And, Jeffrey Kluger, author of "The Sibling Effect," told the Washington Post earlier this week that 99 percent of parents have favorites, and that the other 1 percent is lying.
Despite the common tendency for picking favorites, the subject is still taboo. When Kate Tietje blogged about loving her son more than her daughter for Babble last spring, several respondents attacked her and suggested she needed therapy. The comments were so harsh that Tietje had to write a follow-up post, explaining herself.
"I love both my children, and will love all my future children," Tietje wrote, before explaining how her daughter can be a real disciplinary challenge sometimes.
"This in no way means that we love her less, that we spend less time with her, or that we treat her like a 'second class citizen.' We parent her differently because she is a different child…So, I’m not a perfect mom. I never will be. It is my hope that in confessing my failings, as well as constantly evaluating them and striving to do better, that I can be the best mom that I can be."
Tietje isn't the first to spark outrage with a confession of this nature. Most moms remember what happened when Ayelet Waldman admitted to loving her husband more than their four kids in The New York Times in 2005 -- talk show hosts tore her to pieces and some incensed readers went so far as threatening to report her to Social Services. If these reactions are any indication, many believe a mom's love for her children is supposed to be unwavering, unconditional -- and equally distributed among her family.
And yet, experts say parent-child relationships are like any others: they're made up of unique personalities and circumstances and they're all going to work differently.
Edwards explained that sometimes one child is favored by default. "There may be two dynamics at work: one is when you're more identified or attracted to one child, and the other is when you are rejecting a child," she said.
According to Edwards, one reason a parent might get along with one child more than another stems from temperament -- if your child is similar to you, you're more likely to feel compatible and want to spend time with that child, she said. A parent might also favor one child if he or she was born after lots of trying, if the child is the only girl or boy in the family, or if the child is easy to discipline. Birth order plays a role too, she said. For example, if you're a first child and your daughter is as well, you might relate to her more easily than you do to a second or third child.
Problems arise when parents don't actively deal with their favoritism and children pick up on it, experts say.
"Kids have an overwhelming sense of justice and they're aware when things are unjust," said Karl Pillemer, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied favoritism extensively.
"I'm doing interviews with hundreds of people, 70 and older, and one of the most emotional things for them after 70 or 80 years are memories of parental favoritism," he added. "For people who feel that there was great differential treatment in their family, it does have lasting effects."
Pillemer's studies have found higher rates of anxiety, depression and behavioral problems in children and adolescents who perceive favoritism, and those mental health consequences can continue into adulthood. For example, a less favored child may become a more antisocial adult, he said.
So it's natural for parents to have a favorite child, but they're doing serious damage to their children by having one? It sounds like a bit of a lose-lose. Luckily, there are ways to give each child a lasting sense of value.
"[Favoritism is] the kind of thing that you feel [but] you do not express and you work against," Pillemer said. Parents should recognize that they get along with one child better than the other, then work hard to treat them equally and celebrate their differences in spite of it, he said. Start by losing the comparisons.
"Catch yourself when you say 'Johnny always gets his homework done on time, why don't you?'" Pillemer said.
Dr. Edwards suggested making a concerted effort to think of the positive characteristics your less-favorite child possesses, and to compliment him or her for those attributes.
"It's amazing if you can just appreciate the uniqueness of who each one is. For the moment, you can transcend some of these other things that may initially seem big or like they get in the way…That's what kids need: to be seen and understood," said Edwards, who suggested spending more time with one another and finding shared interests to make that time more enjoyable.
Pillemer said you can talk to your spouse about these issues, but that the only time it's acceptable to make public the preferential treatment to your children is when there is a compelling reason for it. For example, he said if you have a child with special needs, it's okay to pay more attention to him or her.
"If Johnny is learning disabled, the other kids have to understand the mom may have to spend more time with him. If Mary is a very talented figure skater, mom is going to have spend more time with her," Pillemer said. "If kids perceive that the preferential treatment as fair, because of some special reason, they're less likely to have these negative consequences."
Dr. Benjamin Siegel, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Boston University, suggests talking to your pediatrician or to a counselor if you're struggling with favoritism.
"When you have…two, three or four kids, there's always going to be differences in the relationships. Naturally, parents will gravitate to one child over the other, and will see that child as 'the better child.' Or there's 'the tough child,' 'the challenging child’…" said Siegel, who suggested parents should stop thinking about these associations as "favoritism."
"That’s a misnomer: it's a setup for more conflict. I'd like to frame it as relating to children differently, and it's complicated," Siegel said. "It doesn't mean parents should feel guilty, and it doesn't mean that they're not effective parents."
Good news for anyone who answered C in the pop quiz at the beginning of this story.
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