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Dr. Ellen Libby

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Are You the 'Favorite Parent' in Your Household?

Posted: 04/19/10 02:51 PM ET

"You bet I'm the favorite parent," one woman adamantly expressed during a reading of my book, The Favorite Child, which addresses the topic of favoritism in families. "I'm always around for my kids. I help with homework, make their meals, and take them to practices. When they have something on their mind, it is me they talk to. They are just more comfortable around me than they are around Tom. I know that the kids love both of us but when it comes to favorites, it's me."

This public disclosure of wanting to be the favored parent echoed the thoughts and concerns of many others in the room.

In families, parents want to be favored just as much as the children. While this desire to be chosen -- to be preferred over someone else -- is normal, the negative consequences to the parent/child relationship can be profound if left unchecked. In order to help parents avoid these pitfalls, I wanted to address common concerns regarding favoritism among parents.

Do love and Favoritism Differ?

Yes, love is very different from favoritism. Love reflects tender feelings of affection, and usually implies strong loyalty or unquestioned devotion. The Wall Street Journal recently featured a story articulating this loyalty and devotion when writing about adult children caring for aging parents. As adults, these children believed that caring for aging parents is what loving children do, and to do so, these children often had to put aside their tension, resentment, and animosity that stemmed from feelings of having been overlooked children when growing up.

Favoring one parent over another differs. Favorite implies a preference, a stronger pull towards one person over another. People, even when aware of their preferences, are usually uncomfortable in acknowledging them. The discomfort can be so profound that to mute the choice people may incorrectly employ the word "love" rather than "favorite." This behavior is often observed in children who say they love one parent more than the other when most likely the children are expressing a preference. They prefer the parent who lets them stay up later, lets them go out before completing homework, or doesn't insist that clothes be picked up off the floor. Children manipulate parents by using the lure that they will be the favorite if they indulge the child or the threat that if denied, that the other parent who grants the indulgence would be favored.

Is the Same Parent Always Favored or Can Children Favor Different Parents at Different Times?

The parent who children prefer may vary by the moment or by a time of life, or be fixed to one parent for most of a lifetime. Children may momentarily favor the parent who is more permissive, knowing who to go to for a later curfew or an allowance advance. During a particular stage of life, children may favor the parent most supportive of their athletic, artistic, or intellectual interests. Children may hold, throughout their entire life, one parent as the favorite: this may reflect something as benign as a meshing of temperament or as potentially dangerous as abuse in the family.

The desire of some parents to be the preferred parent can impede the quality of their parenting, interfering with parents' abilities to set and enforce rules that children don't like. Parents decisions have to be driven by what is in the overall best interest of children, not by what will win them the popularity contest. For example, rather than remain firm when telling young drivers that they can't drive on a rainy night, parents who do not want to be unfavored may be more vulnerable to backing down. Or, when children spending weekends with a divorced parent rant about having to complete an assignment for school before kicking a soccer ball - insisting that rules in the home of the other parent are different, the weekend parent has to remain steadfast, driven by their sense of right and wrong and NOT by fears of being the unfavored parent.

Why Can it Be So Important for One Parent to Feel Favored?

It is normal to want to be chosen or selected. Some parents are deliberate in the desires to be the favorite parent. The most potentially destructive enactment of parents fighting for the status of favorite is divorced parents competing for favored status; these parents, locked in to the battle of wanting to be preferred, are often driven to give children what they say they want, like more toys or expensive jackets, without considering what children need, like more reassurance, attention, or time.

Less blatant are parents who want to be favored and behave, sometimes unknowingly, to further that objective.

Example 1: One father, Tony, commented he knew his parents loved all their children but his older brother held the position as their favorite. Though Tony, even as an adult knew his injury was irrational, he continued to resent his lesser status. He turned to his children to soothe his life-long pain: he needed his children to want him more than they did their mother to compensate for his parents not favoring him more than his brother. As Tony described, "When my kids were growing up, I always had to be the good cop. I never said "no" or made them unhappy unless what they wanted would physically injury them. I wanted my children to turn to me before my wife. I wanted to be the parent they favored."

Example 2: Another parent, Karen, stated, "My husband works all the time and during the week is never home. As for me, I put my career on hold for the good of the family. You are darn right I expect my children to prefer me to my husband. I am the one who has given up my life for them while he goes off and does his thing." As Karen continued, she expressed resentment for her husband's affirmation in his professional life and believed it unfair that he be affirmed at home. Home was her turf, the domain where she deserved to feel affirmed, and therefore, chosen.

How Can a Parent's Need to Be Favored Impact Their Relationship With Their Partner as Well as the Relationship of Each Parent With the Children?

1. A parent's investment in being the favored parent challenges their relationship with their respective wife and husband. For example, the family dynamics imposed by Tony and Karen's needs impact the functioning of their families. Tony's role as "the good cop" leaves his wife to be "the bad cop." In all probability, her resentment percolates, which undermines her trust and affection for him. As for Karen, she undermines her husband's attraction to her as his probable resentment grows over his devaluation in the family.

2. Because of the need to be the favorite, parenting children can be less effective. An essential aspect of parenting is to make decisions that are in the best interest of children, not necessarily popular decisions. When parents are driven by their needs to be favored, they are often less reliable in making healthy parenting decisions.

3. Third, children intuitively know their parents' needs, even if those needs are not expressed. For children to grow up feeling pressured to favor one parent over the other undermines their relationship with both parents.

For many parents feelings surrounding being favored is subtler. During stages of children's lives, one parent may have more in common with a given child during that stage than at other stages. Or, temperamentally, one parent and one child may relate better with each other, sharing dry humor or an interest in art. It is common for the parent who is less involved or whom has less in common to feel left out or unfavored. Parents working as a trusting team can effectively monitor the favored interactions of one parent while being inclusive of the other parent.