Since every child is different and every parent relates differently to each child, having a favorite is inevitable. But at the suggestion that one child is favored over the others, parents often become defensive. Why?
Favoritism vs. Love
Love is a tender feeling and strong affection that is usually accompanied by loyalty and devotion. Healthy love is unconditional and lasts a lifetime, evolving as people grow and change. For instance, parents express love for their newborns by holding the baby close to their chest -- an inappropriate expression of love as children enter adolescence. Loving parents embrace all of their children and are devoted to their growth, safety, health and wellbeing. In return, they only expect love.
Favoritism, however, is conditioned on children filling a need or void in their parents' lives, or making parents feel good about themselves. The better the child makes the parent feel, the more likely the child will be favored and win the ultimate reward -- confidence and power in knowing that they are the favorite child in their family.
While love lasts a lifetime, favoritism may or may not. Ideally, the status of "favorite child" rotates among children, lasting for only hours, days or months. In other families, however, one child may secure the position of favorite child for a lifetime. For instance, an only child is automatically the favorite and remains that way always.
This parent and child interaction may be unconscious or conscious. For example, when children are born with characteristics that remind a parent of loving grandparents, parents may unconsciously ascribe endearing characteristics to these children. Alternatively, many parents are conscious of preferring cooperative children to a combative sibling. Favorite child status can also be earned, as when a parent delights in a child's achievement. Other times the status is not earned, but is an accident of birth, as when a child is favored because of sex or birth order.
Unconditional love offers children security; it does not earn them special privileges. In contrast, favoritism usually does not offer children security and commonly does earn them special privileges. In exchange for making parents feel good about themselves, favorite children are more likely to get what they want and grow up feeling entitled. Favorite children often are not held accountable for their behaviors and face minimal or inconsistent consequences. The less favoritism rotates among children in families, the more likely favorite children are to grow up feeling the benefits of confidence and the risks of believing that the rules don't apply to them.
Does Favoritism Cause Irreparable Harm?
Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.
For example, in my book, The Favorite Child, I describe a family in which all three daughters were exceptionally bright, but one daughter carried her parents' hope for an MIT scholarship. Other than schoolwork, nothing was expected of this sister. Other siblings were expected to take over her chores, do her laundry, and change her bed sheets. These siblings grew up feeling unfavored and they were filled with resentment and animosity. The favorite sister struggled with unbearable guilt and wanted loving relationships with her sisters. Simultaneously, she lived with the pressure to fulfill her parents' expectations and did not want to disappoint them. In this family, all children psychologically suffered by the enactment of favoritism.
When the favorite child status is rotated among children, all children feel the security of their parents' love and do not feel damaging resentment when siblings are favored. In contrast, like in the example above, when one child is exclusively favored, all children in the family, including the favored, are more vulnerable to psychological injury.
Recently, a group of students at Stanford University debated with parents (not their own) the existence of favoritism in families. The students agreed that favoritism existed in all their families and that they knew instinctively which siblings were favored. But, because the students felt secure in their parents' love, they felt no resentment and easily accepted their family dynamics.
Not Wanting To Be Our Parents
Parents learn about parenting from their own parents. Sometimes they want to replicate how they were brought up and other times they want to parent differently. Either way, the behavior of adult children is grounded in their pasts; their reactions to present experiences are colored by former experiences.
During a recent reading of The Favorite Child, one parent commented that he and his wife tried to treat their children equally, but it was harder to enforce boundaries with their son. This father was concerned that their son was growing up to believe that rules do not apply to him. His wife lashed out, saying: "how dare you accuse me of parenting like my mother?" Apparently, her resentment of her mother's relationship with her brother interfered with her ability to appreciate the truth of her husband's remark.
When adult children are critical of their parents' behaviors, it is often because they fear they are parenting as their parents did. This contributes to their defensiveness and undermining their parenting.
Recently a man wrote me anonymously, sharing that he feels guilty for favoring his son over his daughter. His father had favored his sister and he and his brother "took the heat for anything (she) did that was wrong." As an adult, this man suffered, hating that, like his father, he favored one child.
But, favoring one child, as his father had, does not make him like his father. His father was either unaware or indifferent to the hurt and pain his preferential treatment of his daughter caused his sons. Unlike his father, this man was concerned about the potential negative consequences of favoring one child over another and enlisted his wife's loving support to help him treat both children fairly.
When parents are defensive about favoring one child over others, the dangers of favoritism increase. Unwilling to consider the observations of those we trust is a warning flag signaling possible harm.
Tips to help prevent scars caused by favoritism in a family