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Favoritism in Families: When Parents Show Preferential Treatment

Favoritism in families is one of those widespread problems that very few people talk about. “It’s happening all the time, but people don’t want to acknowledge it,” says New York University sociologist Dalton Conley. “There is such a strong taboo against treating your kids differently.” (McGowan, 2008) And for good reason.

When parents show favoritism it can harm children in numerous ways, leading to an increase in stress, depression, and a number of other mental health problems. It triggers many suicides. Feelings of inadequacy become incorporated into a child’s identity, leading to a lower sense of self worth and poor self-esteem. And it’s not just the unfavored child who suffers: this dynamic puts the favored kid in a tough position, and their psychological health can go downhill as well. They may worry about somehow “falling from grace” or losing their privileged place in your heart. In households where there is differential treatment, both favored and unfavored children have more trouble adjusting to life situations. On top of it all, there are reasons to avoid favoritism for your own sake: the greater the perception of differential treatment there is in the household, the more sibling conflict and hostility you’ll have to contend with. (Marano, 2010; More information on the harmful effects of favoritism can be found in our book Child Maltreatment: A Cross Comparison.)

Is it normal to have a favorite child?

Yet a study by Catherine Conger found that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually their gender opposite. When talking with parent groups, almost all mothers and fathers seem to acknowledge having “one child who speaks to our heart.” (Faber & Mazlish, 1998, p. 77) Children are very sensitive to any type of preferential treatment, and can pick up on favoritism even when the parents themselves aren’t aware of it.

As one mother recalls, “I know my son, Paul, is painfully aware of the great pride we take in our daughter. He’s told us point blank, ‘You and Daddy always look at each other when Liz says something.’ At first we didn’t know what he was talking about. Then we realized that we constantly exchanged these ‘isn’t-she-terrific’ looks.” (ibid, p.77)

Here’s the good news in all of this: it’s not about whether you harbor secret preferences for one child over another, it’s how you handle these feelings that matters.

Getting over the guilt that comes with parental favoritism

There is nothing, they say, like first love, until you have another child. God Himself started playing favorites the moment there was not only Cain but Abel. But we mortals seem to dwell on the puzzle of multiple loyalties, guilty each time we prefer the company of one child over another.

We do, inevitably, shift alliances from one child to another, and back. It is a matter of ages and stages, the parent’s as much as the child’s. There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt wise and wonderful in the presence of newborn Gabriel and hopelessly stupid in the presence of his (then) less malleable sister. It’s just that no one is supposed to admit this. …I know that all she wanted was me, all alone, to herself. And often, what I wanted – it hurts me, for her sake, to confess it – was to have Gabriel, all alone, to myself. I wanted to enjoy him without hurting her and it wasn’t really easy for anyone.”

– Sonia Taitz (1994, p. 172)

The first step in dealing with favoritism is to refrain from the tendency to beat yourself up over it. Start by reminding yourself that these thoughts in and of themselves do not make you a bad parent, and are actually quite normal. Even professionals can struggle against favoritism. One child psychiatrist confessed that both he and his wife strongly preferred their 7-year-old daughter to her 5-year-old sister. The younger girl seemed to be going through a melodramatic stage full of pouting and easy irritability. Not surprisingly, the parents found these traits annoying. (Kutner, 1996) So if even child development specialists with years of training can find themselves playing favorites, that hardly condemns the rest of us to parenting hell for preferring one child over another – so long as we deal with these feelings appropriately.

Feelings are just feelings. They are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Such thoughts and emotions are automatic. Much like sexual orientation, we don’t sit down and consciously choose to have a favorite child any more than we freely choose who or what we’ll be attracted to. These feelings and desires come to us in a fraction of a second, courtesy of your subconscious. Before a thought breaks through the surface of conscious awareness, your brain has been performing thousands of calculations behind the scene in order to reach a general consensus about what it thinks you should feel. This consensus is created by the background chatter of different neurons competing with each other to be heard, and the content of this chatter depends upon the billions of data points that are made up of your life experiences and general nature.

For example, by the time you become aware of a feeling of like or dislike, your brain has already accessed countless numbers of associations (Have I encountered this before? What is it similar to? What have I heard? What have I learned from past experiences? Does it fit my life goals? What costs/benefits are involved? And so on) in order to generate this feeling. This is why one person can see a pet snake and become happy and want to hold it, whereas another may shriek in terror before quickly exiting the room. Different experiences create different brains with different data points that generate different likes and desires.

Therefore beating yourself up over having the “wrong” feelings about your children is a pointless exercise in futility. Your preferential feelings for one child over another are based on calculations your brain does without your knowledge or consent.

Some degree of favoritism may even be a natural biological tendency. For example, a crested-penguin mother will boot the smaller of her two eggs out of the nest in order to focus on the presumably healthier chick in the bigger shell. And a black eagle mother will sit idly by and watch as her bigger chick rips her smaller one to shreds – a brutal example that gives new meaning to the term sibling rivalry. “The function of the second chick is insurance,” says Douglas Mock, a professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma. “If the first chick is healthy, the policy is canceled.” (Kluger, 10-3-2011) Such examples can be found throughout the animal world.

It’s likely that humans, too, have some degree of this tendency inside of them. For example, anthropological studies show that infanticide is more common when resources are scarce or parenting help is lacking, suggesting that this “heinous” act by modern standards is in fact the result of a natural biological calculation which is designed to ensure that valuable resources devoted towards raising children are spent wisely. Therefore a tendency towards favoritism may be a natural inclination that is triggered under certain circumstances. Of course, human beings also have the capacity for murder and violence. But we refrain from doing so because of its hurtful consequences. Likewise, parents need to do all they can to try and ensure that their personal preferences don’t shine through in the way they treat their kids.


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