If you have at least one sibling, you know all to well the pains of sibling rivalries stemming from vying for your parents’ affection.
Most parents have a favorite child and EVERYONE knows it.
Christine Northam, a counsellor at Relate, says favoring one child over others is actually extremely common and normal. And having a favorite doesn’t make you a bad parent. It makes you human. The true difference maker and key factor dictating how much damage is done to “the others” is your parenting style.
Why do we have favorites?
No parent intends on connecting with one child more than the others, so why does this happen? This is an intriguing question with equally intriguing answers.
You favor the one most likely to take care of you later
Sounds completely asinine and a little twisted doesn’t it? Well, researchers from Cornell and Purdue Universities conducted a study and concluded this was the top reason parents had for favoring a specific child over another. The child that was perceived most likely to care for mama in her twilight years earned first prize.
You favor the child that is most like you.
This one is pretty obvious. We love to see ourselves in our children. We see evidence of this in the ever popular “mini-me” phenomenon. It’s a bit narcissistic but definitely understandable. Take for example the sports fanatic father who excelled (or dreamed of excelling) at sports, he will most likely dote on the “jock” in the family.
Researcher Megan Gilligan, a former Purdue graduate student who collaborated on favoritism the project, said one of the biggest predictors of who parents’ golden child will be is their perception of similarities between themselves and their favorite offspring. It’s the one they feel has beliefs and values most similar to their own.
Birth order can play a significant role in who parents favor
Scientific research published in the journal Demography shows that the birth of a first and a second child briefly increases the level of their parents’ happiness, but that a third child can have a negative effect.
Transversely, the baby of the family could be the one favored if the parents desire more children but cannot have more.
The list of reasons why parents plays favorites goes on and on. Favoritism can result because of a child’s gender, intelligence, behavior, physical attractiveness (yes it’s true), shared interests and personality/disposition.
At the end of the day the why is not nearly as important as what we should do about it. This is where awareness of one’s parenting style and the ability to tailor it to suit the needs of each child becomes vitally important.
Favoritism demonstrated over a long period of time can be extremely damaging. It’s a parent’s responsibility to regulate themselves and their partner to make sure that one child isn’t given more attention than the others.
If parents fail to adapt their parenting style and continuously shower one child with excessive affection, the repercussions for the other children can last for decades. The lesser-favored children build up feelings of inferiority, which can translate into lower self-confidence as adults.
Favoritism can ignite and perpetuate intense sibling rivalries. It can stir up feelings of animosity, anger, bitterness and jealousy between the more favored sibling and the others. The sibling relationships could be forever damaged due to the subtle and underlying conflict parents playing favorites causes.
Perception is everything
According to Dr. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging:
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings. “The less favored kids may have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling, and being the favored child brings resentment from one’s siblings and the added weight of greater parental expectations.”
Adapting your parenting style
Here are some things experts suggest you do to ensure your children are not scarred long term as a result of parental favoritism.
1. Give all the children the same amount of attention but make sure the attention is individualized
Try to ensure that the time you spend with each child suits the specific needs of the child individually. Tailor activities, conversations and time spent to match your child’s unique personality and interests.
2. Listen and be attentive for cues that your kids may be feeling less loved
Kids give subtle (and not so subtle) hints as to how they are feeling. When a child is expressing feelings that you are favoring a sibling over them try not to be dismissive and give them the canned “I love you all the same,” response. Instead delve deeper into the issue to determine what specifically is leading to those feelings. Then address it head on.
3. Enlist the help of other adults
Allowing other trusted, responsible and safe adults to spend time with your kids–especially those who are a bit more attention starved is a great way of ensuring they get the attention and emotional connection from a caring adult that they need.
Some kids just need more attention–plain and simple. Allowing others to assist can aid you in ensuring that you are treating each child fairly but also ensuring they are getting what they need. Fairness does not necessarily mean equality. The distribution of love should be equal but the execution of how that love is displayed should be individualized.