Are You Playing Favorites? Parents: Read This!

Do you have a favorite child? It happens to lots of families, so you shouldn't feel bad, but you should do something about it. Read on for the myths and facts about favoritism.

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"...She could do no wrong..."

By Keren Perles

“My sister was always the favorite in our family. My dad loved her and thought she could do no wrong.”

Comments like this aren't unusual. Many siblings believe that their family has a “favorite.” As a parent, you may spend plenty of time fending off accusations about having a “favorite” or you may spend the time fending off your own guilty feelings on the topic.

Linda Sonna, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor of counseling psychology at Yorkville University, has written 12 parenting books, including The Parent’s Guide to Raising Siblings. There are many myths about favoritism and parenting, she says, but she has the true facts and insights you need. Read on!

Most parents don’t have favorites.

This is a myth!

"Most parents do have favorites, at least in the sense that they feel closer to one child than another due to having more shared interests or understanding one child better than another,” says Sonna.

“Parents often feel closer to the child that is more like them. Alternatively, if parents don’t feel good about themselves, or if they dislike certain aspects of their own personality or of the other parent’s, they may have a harder time feeling closer to the child who displays the disliked characteristic.”

Birth order affects favoritism.

This is a fact!

Some parents may have a favorite based on birth order. For example, parents commonly prefer the youngest child of the family, especially because the family “baby” tends to be more laid-back and may attract attention by crying or being cute. After all, the parents usually raise the youngest child in a more relaxed manner, and the “baby” often uses charm and appeals to parents’ protective instincts in order to compete with older siblings.

So what does this mean to parents? On the one hand, it means that parents who have favorite children are in good company. On the other hand, it means that children who accuse their parents of showing favoritism may be right.

If there’s a favorite in the family, everyone knows it.

This is a myth!

Actually, parents are often oblivious or in denial about any situation of favoritism. “When I ask in family sessions which child is the favorite, it is typical for one youngster to raise a hand while all of the siblings point to that child—and while the parents adamantly deny having a favorite,” says Sonna. So if your children are accusing you of favoritism, think long and hard before denying it.

Talking and listening helps.

This is a fact!

Talk to your children about favoritism in a calm manner, at a time when there are no struggles actively on the front burner. Try something like “Joanne, a couple of days ago you mentioned that you think I love Alex more than you, and that I let him off the hook too easily. What makes you think that I love him more?”

Think carefully about your child’s answer to determine whether there may be a grain of truth in what she is feeling.

All children should be treated the same way.

This is a myth!

Sure, favoritism has many downsides. Comparing siblings can increase sibling rivalry and lower self-esteem, and mistreating a child based on favoritism is never okay. Not only can favoritism harm the less-favored child—it can also be detrimental to the favored child. “They commonly feel badly or even guilty about being the favored, as if being favored were their fault,” Sonna explains.

It’s okay to treat your children differently.

This is a fact!

As a parent, you would like to be fair, but each child is an individual and should be treated accordingly. And children can usually accept that a parent feels closer to one child than to another. So don’t beat yourself up for feeling that one child is especially cute or smart. Instead, work on how you interact with each child to make sure that one of them isn’t getting the short end of the stick.

There is nothing parents can do to reduce favoritism.

This is a myth!

This is perhaps one of the most harmful myths about favoritism. If you have a favorite child, take heart! You can still develop a strong relationship with your other children and protect them from some of the dangers of favoritism.

Read on for a couple tips that Sonna suggests.

Make the effort.

To become closer to each of your less-favored children, you need to put in the time and effort, which in itself shows your child how much you love him. Take advantage of any activities or interests that you share. Work to understand how he thinks and feels, and to determine the reasons behind his behavior.

Don’t overcompensate for your partner.

When one parent favors one child, it’s often natural for the other parent to go out of her way to favor the other child. But as Sonna points out, “Overcompensating can in fact create more problems than it solves by increasing marital tensions, which can make the less-favored child feel guilty for being the cause of his parents’ conflicts or the household tension.”

If your partner favors one child, talk to him in private about working on his relationship with the other children. If this is not effective, you may need to speak with your child as well. “By helping your child understand that the rejection is not his or her fault, you can provide invaluable support,” says Sonna.

Keep your relationships going strong.

Even if you do have a “favorite” in your home, keep in mind that you can take steps to reduce the negative effects this may have on the rest of your children. Accept the fact that some parents simply click more with one child than with another, and work on your relationships with your other children to make sure that they are strong as well.

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