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Mom and Dad: How to Solve the Favoritism Problem Once and For All

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"I don't think parents should worry about 'having' a favorite, but rather about the 'how' of parenting a favorite," writes Barbara on the blog Life 360.

This sentiment reflects an important principle underlying the favorite child complex: favoritism is normal and occurs in EVERY family -- traditional and nontraditional, multiple children and only children. When parents deny its existence, they are less able to pay attention to the more important concern of how their children experience favoritism. The more unaware parents are of their own displays of favoring one child, or overlooking or neglecting another, the more unable parents are to grasping the impact of favoritism on their children. The behaviors of these parents are likely to undermine the mental health of the favorite child and to hurt those who are not favored.

While many parents don't believe that they prefer one child to another, they do admit to having a stronger bond with a given child. Other parents insist they don't have a favorite but acknowledge that on a given evening, they prefer being with the child who is more easy-going, cooperative or less whiny. One mother writes, "Of course I relate better to my child who is most like me. It is just easier for me to understand her but that doesn't mean that I have a favorite." These parents delude themselves: In those moments that they feel a preference for one child, parents are vulnerable to conveying their preferential feelings of that child. Others in the family are likely to perceive even the subtle expressions of favoritism.

Personal feelings generated by the "favorite child complex" can last a lifetime. The breathe and depth of these reactions is influenced by HOW favoritism is enacted:

-Whether the favorite is one child or rotates among all family members

-Whether the rewards of being favored convey entitlement and permit minimal accountability

-Whether each family member feels loved, valued, and validated

-Whether the emerging identity of the favorite child is thwarted by the powerful parent

-Whether issues and feelings emerging from favoritism are talked about openly.

Rotating Favoritism Among Family Members

When favoritism is rotated from child to child, it is likely that no family member will be marred. Children know they will have their turn to be favored, that the privilege of the position is to be shared. Children acknowledge parents' closer ties with siblings at given ages, maybe one parent favors toddlers while another favors adolescents. In other families, the birthday child may be indulged for weeks. Some mothers, when overwhelmed, may favor children who are more self-sufficient or the ones with a sense of humor, and at other times, favor children more willing to accept their help. Growing up in families where favorite child status changes lets children appreciate being favored while carrying little resentment when it isn't their turn.

Children appreciate the uniqueness of the different relationships in the family, understanding that no two relationships are the same. They easily accept that the athletic parent and sibling have a unique bond, or the specialness that may exist between a parent and a difficult sibling. "My mother could calm my brother unlike anyone in the world. Otherwise, he was likely to erupt," commented one adult woman. "What they had was something special, and the whole family was better off for it. While I knew I wasn't my mother's favorite, my mother was amazing. I know she loved me and appreciated me. I never felt neglected or overlooked."

When favoritism does not rotate among siblings it is more likely that resentment among siblings and between siblings and parents emerges. In these families, the rewards of being the favorite tend to be lopsided, with those not favored building resentment over time. As I elaborate in my book, The Favorite Child, when one child is chosen and exclusively holds that position, the longing of the other children can morph in to resentment.

Entitlement

Because a given child is favored does not mean that child is necessarily indulged. For example, in some families oldest children are expected to take over the family businesses, in part, to provide for their siblings. While these children are favored, more may be expected of them. In commenting on her older brother's status in the family, one woman reflected, "Yes, his relationship with our parents was special, but so much more was expected of him. It is like he was always in training to take care of the family -- to run the business and to take care of us. He never treated us like he felt entitled to preferential treatment but rather seemed to feel he had to work harder to deserve his special place in our parents' hearts."

This experience differs from that of favorite children who, by virtue of their status, grow up believing that rules don't apply to them, that they are entitled to what they want. Jenny Sanford, in her autobiography Staying True, recollects that when first meeting the siblings of her ex-husband, Governor Mark Sanford, they commented about his inflated feelings of entitlement and self-absorption. They understood these traits as a by-product of attitudes that he developed in his favored relationship with their mother. In another case, a reader named Timothy commented on the disadvantages of being favored. He said that when it came to his sister, who was their father's favorite, there were no rules, but when it came to him, the rules were unwavering. "Even now, as adults," he wrote, "my sister believes she can do what she wants, when she wants, that rules don't apply to her...only to me. Even though my life is now much better than hers, I still resent her and can't get over my anger towards my father."

In families where favorite children grow up playing by the same rules as everyone else, it is less likely that unfavored siblings feel animosity towards the favorite. When this is not the case and favored siblings grow up feeling entitled to what they want when they want it, it is more likely that the tension created between siblings lasts a lifetime.

Feeling Loved

Individuals who feel loved, valued, and validated by their parents are less likely to be negatively effected if they are not favored. During a recent forum at Stanford University, undergraduates agreed that there were favorite children in their families and those students who felt loved and valued by their parents were not disturbed if they were not the favorite. As one student commented, "My mom and my sister are like two peas in a pod. They see everything the same way. There is something special between them. Of course Mom prefers being with her and favors her. But, I have no doubt how much mom loves me. She was my cheerleader. I wouldn't have achieved all that I did without her commitment."

At a presentation about favoritism in families, one father acknowledged that as a kid, he was difficult, and his cooperative brother was their father's favorite. As an adult, this man appreciated his father's efforts in spending quality time with him. "My father worked hard to let me know that he loved me, even if I was difficult. My dad hated baseball but I loved it. Yet, he took me -- just me -- regularly to games. How I relished those outings. I still get teary-eyed when remembering them. I know taking me was hard for him. He found baseball boring, and I wasn't easy to be with. Yet, he took me because he knew I wanted to go. He loved me. Knowing that, it doesn't matter that he favored my brother over me."

The Favorite

The advantages are significant of being the favorite child. These children grow up experiencing the confidence gleaned from having won the quintessential contest -- being favored more than anyone else in the family. With this confidence comes a can do it attitude: no challenge seems imposing.

The disadvantages of being favored can be significant as well. Many favorite children grow up feeling entitled to having what they want when they want it, and they do not expect negative consequences for their behaviors. Their parents are vulnerable to not holding them accountable to the same standards as the non-favorite children. When Bill Clinton was president, people wondered why he jeopardized his career by having the relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The answer is simple: he was his mother's favorite son. In exchange for maintaining this relationship with her, he grew up feeling entitled to what he wanted and he did not expect that there would be consequences for his behavior.

An important challenge for parents is to hold favorite children accountable to the same standards as their other children. In so doing, favorite children can grow up with more advantages bestowed from the position and fewer disadvantages.

The Solution: Striving for Open Communication

Children are less likely to be scarred by the dynamics of favoritism when they can freely express their angry reactions and parents listen without getting defensive. This may be hard for parents to do, especially when a child's perceptions don't mirror the parent's intentions.

For example, the mother of a five-year-old told me about her son's request for a blue truck one Christmas. She could not find one sophisticated enough for his age so she bought him a green truck with remote control, complete with lights that turned on and off. She bought a simple blue truck for her younger son, thinking she was avoiding the inevitable fight provoked when the two year old grabbed the toys of his older brother. On Christmas morning, the older brother was enraged, shouting, "I wanted a blue truck and he got one. You love him more. He is your favorite." With that, the child stormed out. The mother, of course, wanted to deny her son's truth and explain how hard she had looked for a blue truck that she thought he'd like. But, her five-year-old would have none of her logic. All she could do was acknowledge that she had disappointed him and her regret about that.

When children mature and use language to express hurt feelings generated by favoritism, the disparity becomes more evident between parent's intentions and children's perceptions. In healthy families, these differences can be respectfully explored when parents are receptive to their child's perceptions and resist the temptation to refute them. It is also necessary that children, in a manner appropriate for their age, grow to understand their parents' behaviors and respect their intent.

Ultimately, the best method to insure healthy family dynamics surrounding favoritism is to listen to, acknowledge, and strive to understand the different reactions of each family member. Truth may be conveyed through humor and teasing, as children who taunt one another with "You are the favorite." Or through matter-of-fact pronouncements, as children who simply state, "I am mommy's favorite and John is daddy's." These innocent exchanges within families can allow discussion of the issues and can teach parents important lessons in the HOW of favoritism.