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Dr. Ellen Libby

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On Father's Day, Every Dad Is the Favorite

Posted: 06/20/10 09:00 AM ET

It's Father's Day! Feeling Special?

Father's Day is fast approaching and children of all ages will soon celebrate their fathers with words, gifts, and cards. Some fathers will enthusiastically and whole-heartedly embrace the tributes coming their way, while others will be more guarded, not psychologically prepared to celebrate.

These mixed responses on Father's Day are rooted in a father's own childhood experiences and his memories of celebrating Father's Day with his own dad. These memories are also shaped by the father-son relationship: Was he the favorite child? Was he unfavored? Was he overlooked when growing up?

It is, in part, this family experience of feeling favored or not, that teaches children to embrace their own specialness. Men who experienced favoritism as a child most likely developed the psychological maturity needed to express love. Fathers who were either unfavored or overlooked as children are less likely to see themselves as special. They may have grown up not believing that they are fully lovable and thus, they might struggle to fully accept expressions of love this Father's Day.

Fathers who were the favorite child

Fathers who experienced the benefits of favoritism as a child most likely developed the confidence that evolves from having won the quintessential struggle -- being deemed more special than anyone else in the family. Favorite children learn what it is like to be praised or even exalted. These childhood experiences mesh with subsequent life experiences, preparing these men who are now fathers themselves, for adulation from their family on Father's Day.

Even more than appreciating praise on Father's Day, these men expect it. One father, who grew up as the favorite child, readily acknowledged that the praise his children heap on him was neither surprising nor excessive, but a realistic reflection of his outstanding parenting. Because this father adored his own father, it made sense to him that his children would feel similarly about him.

Being favored as a child, however, can also have another effect on a father. One father I have worked with felt like no celebration of his fathering was adequate. His wife reported that both she and the children fell short of praising him on Father's Day because no one could equal his mother's praise of him when he was young. The mother and children in this family lived with a constant, dull feeling of falling short.

Growing up the unfavored child

For men who grew up as unfavored children, the challenges posed on Father's Day are most difficult. Having grown up the victims of their parents' dislike or rejection, these men have more difficulty accepting love and they struggle to accept unadulterated love or caring. A lifetime of hurt and disappointed has taught them to not expect loving expressions, which has caused them to build barriers to protect themselves. Consequently, on Father's Day, as their children extend loving sentiment or unbridled caring, these men may have difficulty accepting or believing the love directed at them.

One father commented, "I know my kids love me and the greatest gift I could have on Father's Day is a gift that only I could give myself -- to believe, in the bottom of my heart, all the loving things my kids say and do. I never quite let myself believe it."

Fathers who grew up overlooked

The word "overlooked" suggest how these men expect to be treated in the world: ignored or unnoticed. Men who grew up as overlooked children may be neither as pleased nor as disappointed as men who grew up as the favorite. Never expecting to be the center of attention, these dads are fine with whatever attention, how little or much, they receive.

One father who grew up in his sister's shadow fought with his adult children over their Father's Day celebration: Each year on Father's Day he insisted his family host a barbecue for his sister and brother-in-law whose anniversary fell around Father's Day. This father was content to go unnoticed and, infact, felt awkward at his children's insistence that the tradition be broken and he be the one celebrated. Other fathers growing up as overlooked children can feel pleasure in the offerings of their children, happy with whatever comes their way.

Making This Father's Day More Satisfying

To make this Father's Day the most memorable, remember:

  • Your children are not your parents! Don't expect them to either adore you or to overlook you as your parents may have.

  • Who you are to your children is special, unique, and irreplaceable! In your children's experience, there is no one like you.
  • It may be daunting to fully grasp your importance to your children. Who you are is whom they have grown to love and depend on.
  • It is up to you to open your heart to the depth of their love! It is up to you to fully accept your children's love -- however each child may express it.

Happy Father's Day!