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Dr. Ellen Libby Headshot

The Favorite Child: Unraveling This Pervasive Dynamic

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Did you know that there are favorite children in every family? Did you know that favoritism impacts every family member for life? In my 30-year practice as a clinical psychologist, I have observed, on a daily basis, the effects of favoritism on favorite children, overlooked children and unfavored children. I elaborate on this never-written-about topic in my book The Favorite Child. I describe how favoritism is alive in every family and impacts every member.

Favorite children affirm their parents or fill a void in their lives. As a reward, these children believe that they are adored more than anyone else in the family, that they have won the quintessential prize of being the most cared for in the family by this important parent. Holding this belief, children feel confidence and power. They grow up trusting in their abilities to impact positively on the world and to take on important challenges, such as solving the problems of hunger and disease, or excelling in literature, sports, or the arts. Usually parents are unaware -- first, of looking to children for verification or fulfillment, and second, of favoring children in exchange.

There are dangers inherent in being the favorite child. Unbridled confidence can be accompanied by feelings of entitlement and little, if any, realization that there are consequences for actions. For example, Tiger Woods, an only child and therefore automatically the favorite child, said in a recent press conference commenting on his affairs, "I played by a different set of rules." The rules of character that applied to others did not apply to him. He believed that he could do what he wanted without being held accountable for his behavior. He gave no thought to the consequences of his actions on the people around him.

Woods' attitude, that rules do not apply equally to him, is mirrored in that of countless powerful people. This mindset has contributed to the tragic downfall of many, from politicians to athletes. They, having grown up with the psychological advantages of having been the favorite child, had their careers destroyed by believing that rules did not apply to them. Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Mark Sanford are examples of other men who, as favorite children, developed personalities that fed their successes and, ultimately, their failures.

The selection of favorite child is usually mired in parents' unconscious reasons and reflects dynamics of their personalities and families. In some families being the oldest or youngest child may be relevant, while in other families being a girl or boy may count. In other families, the determining factors may be that the child is the spitting image of a beloved grandparent or, in the example of Tiger Woods, has the athletic skills a parent longed for. What is crucial is that children selected as the favorite fill a need or void for their parent, and as a reward, these children are empowered by believing that they are loved just a little bit more than everyone else.

Family dynamics differ when children experience favoritism as emanating from their mothers rather than their fathers. In general, daughters and sons favored by their mothers are more likely to be concerned throughout their lives with issues of closeness and interpersonal boundaries. Children favored by their fathers are more likely to be concerned with success outside of the family.

As families become more complicated, so do the dynamics of favoritism. In single child/single parent families, natural competitiveness to be the most loved is generally limited to how love is expressed and how boundaries, both for the child and between parent and child, are maintained. At the other end of the continuum are blended families, families in which two adults couple and bring together children from prior relationships to live as a unit. Competition to be the most loved by each parent permeates the relationship among every conceivable family member.

Favorite child status can be handed off from child to child at different time periods. Optimally, all children in all families experience the status of being the favorite child and benefit from the advantages coming with that position. Mothers may prefer infants, and all children are favored when they are infants. Fathers may prefer adolescents, favoring the child passing through this stage. In some families, who is favored frequently changes, reflecting the fluid interests and needs of the parents.

Parents can increase the likelihood that all their children benefit from favorite child status while simultaneously minimizing the potential emotional scars of the position.

  • First, parents must accept that favoritism exists in all families. It is neither good nor bad. It just is. No two children are identical and no two parents are identical, and so, preference is inevitable.
  • Second, all family members must feel safe to freely express their feelings about favoritism. Even as adults, siblings often carry childhood tensions stemming from feelings of who in their family was loved more, or who was favored. Family health is promoted through healthy discussion.
  • Third, respectful dialogue between parents, or a parent and trusted confidante, safeguards the inevitable enactment of favoritism. The other adult serves as an observing eye, helping to bring awareness to the potential destructive nature of favorite child dynamics.

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