How to Equally Share Your Heart with All Your Little Loves

Whether or not you have a favorite child, this is a topic worth exploring


Published:

Do you get a pleasant glow every time you look at your middle child because she has your grandfather’s eyes, but not so much for your son who looks like your husband’s cousin? Do you spend hours making freshly blended organic vegetables for your first baby, but resort to grocery store purees for your next two? If you said yes to either of these questions, you might have a favorite child.

This is a perennial, popular topic. From science writer Jeffrey Kluger’s TED talk claiming that 95% of parents have a favorite (and the other 5% are lying), to the current slew of articles with titles insisting that “You really do have a favorite child,” and the scores of “favorite kid” jokes and memes online. Whether or not you have a favorite, and even if you’re 100% sure you do not, this is a topic worth exploring because of the deep effect favoritism can have on both parents and children.

 

What the Data Says

According to Jennifer Lansford, a research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and an affiliate of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, there are “no really good empirical studies on this issue.” She suggests that the “strong social preference not to have a favorite” may cause some parents to feel too embarrassed or guilty to admit they have a favorite, while other parents might have difficulty interpreting the question itself: Does having a “favorite” mean you actually “love” one child more than your other(s)? Or does it simply mean that you treat your children differently for any number of reasons? 

In a group of 30 parents polled anonymously for this article, 13% said they had a favorite. Given the uncertainty of this question, perhaps the more interesting and relevant number is that 50% of parents polled believed their own parents had a favorite, and 40% of parents polled believed their children thought they had a favorite. What seems to matter here is perception. Parents should consider whether their own actions are leading their children to assume they have a favorite.

 

What Kids Say

Kids perceive favoritism, whether it’s there or not, and it can be tricky to know how well your child is reading you.

“Parents underestimate how much kids pick up,” says Meg Hill, a counselor and owner of Raleigh Parent and Child. 

Children can be observant and wrong about what they see, since they read situations and emotions through the sometimes-distorted lens of youth. “It can be difficult for kids to understand that fair doesn’t always mean same,” Hill says. 

She notes several issues that exacerbate kids’ misunderstanding:

Developmental stage: Younger children might miss the nuances of context and see only the piece that affects them. 

Personality: A child might be naturally competitive and, thus, more likely to compare herself (and her treatment) to a sibling. 

Self-image: A child might have a more negative view of herself and might project this view onto a parent. 

 

Adrienne Aaron, a counselor at New Leaf Counseling Group in Charlotte, says that throughout the 20 years she has been practicing, she has never had a parent tell her they had a favorite child. “But plenty of kids have told me their parent has a favorite.”

She says she hears this most often from kids in families with three or more children, from families of both boys and girls, and typically from elementary-age kids who are just learning the concept of fairness.

“It’s impossible to keep score,” she sayss, “but some kids do.” 

If a child perceives that he or she is loved less or more than a sibling, that perception is likely based on a combination of the child’s creative assumption and savvy observation of a parent’s real emotions. The assumption could be situationally based and have nothing to do with a parent’s preference. These situations could include: 

Birth order: The younger child may observe the oldest getting to be the first to do a lot of fun stuff, while the older child may observe the baby being cuddled and coddled.

Differing times in the parent’s life: You are younger with your first born and may be more energetic and enthusiastic, whereas you might be in a better financial position with your youngest child and able to afford more comforts for him or her.

Life changes: Divorce or a family relocation can affect a 3-year-old more or less than a 10-year-old. 

The “real” part could be a child’s legitimate observations of the way you act with each child, Lansford says. It might be that you click better with the personality of one child, so you’re able to relax and have more fun with that child, or one child may have been an “easy baby” which made you feel eternally grateful for those extra hours of sleep. Maybe one child is more temperamentally difficult, which leads to arguments and trouble. Lansford says that a child’s perception will be tied to his or her own emotional wellness. 

“Real or fabricated, a child’s perception matters,” Lansford says. “It is very hurtful for a kid to believe that a parent loves a sibling more.” 

Indeed, it can be damaging for both the favored and less-favored child if a parent displays any kind of preference. Long-term, the favored child may suffer from anxiety while the less-favored child, who might already have low self-esteem, may sink lower.

“It puts pressure on the golden child, who then becomes overly invested in perfection, while the child who feels less loved might believe there’s nothing they can do to get favor and might give up on things they should be working on and improving,” Hill says. 

 

What to Say to Your Kids 

You can avoid projecting favoritism by making use of certain parenting tools. 

Clearly state household rules, and be consistent with the consequences. A child who understands the consequences of actions and sees them equally applied is less likely to think he or she is being treated arbitrarily, compared with a sibling. 

Explain differential treatment. In practice, differential treatment can be a good and necessary parenting strategy. What works well for one child might not make sense for another based on age and personality.

Make each child feel loved. “Kids need to know they’re loved no matter what,” says Caroline Hexdall, a psychologist and owner of the Center for Mindful Development in Hillsborough, North Carolina. “Even when they are frustrating or inappropriate.” She suggests separating your child’s behavior from the feeling of love you have for him or her, and reassure your child that your love is unconditional. “You can even ask, perhaps in a lighthearted way, whether they thought the differential treatment meant they were less loved. You can then respond with something like: ‘No wonder you thought that, but that’s not true or what I meant.’”

 

What to Say to Yourself

There is social pressure not to have a favorite child. In the anonymous poll for this article, 83% of respondents said they felt it was “unhealthy” to have a favorite child. Nonetheless, “it happens,” Hexdall says.

“It’s only natural that we may be drawn to a child who is more compliant, or who has an easier temperament, or whose personality, appearance or preferences may resonate more closely with our own. This is perfectly understandable.” 

Natural and understandable, but does this make you a bad parent? Hexdall says that is the wrong question to ask. 

“Don’t criticize or judge yourself,” she says. “Parents feel guilty about a lot of things, this shouldn’t be part of that list.” Instead, “dig deeper and ask why. Is it really that you love this child more? Or is it that this child is easier to raise? Or that the other child is difficult?” 

Hexdall says by removing self-criticism and judgment, you can get to know yourself better and work on being a more mindful parent who is more open to connecting with all of your children. 

Making these connections and showing this love can be hard work. Hexdall says parents understandably have real feelings, even grief, when a child is difficult in ways he or she hadn’t anticipated.

“Learn to love your children the way they are. Parent the way they need parenting.” 

 

Caitlin Wheeler is a Durham-based freelance writer.

 

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November 2019

Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

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Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
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Raleigh, NC  27603
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See horses compete and enjoy food trucks, children's activities and more. Admission is free; Saturday evening Grand Prix tickets are $10/person. Proceeds benefit Duke Children's...

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We will be conducting a food drive during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get involved...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

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Cost: FREE. Registration is required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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See horses compete and enjoy food trucks, children's activities and more. Admission is free; Saturday evening Grand Prix tickets are $10/person. Proceeds benefit Duke Children's...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gov. James B. Hunt Horse Complex
4601 Trinity Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
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Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

We will be conducting a food drive during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get involved...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Kids hike, make projects and engage in nature activities. Ages 5-8. Register online. Choose course #127196.

Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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We will be conducting a food drive during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get involved...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

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We will be conducting a food drive during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get involved...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

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Kidzu Children's Museum
201 S. Estes Dr.
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Cost: $9/resident, $12/nonresident

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Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Cost: FREE. Registration is required.

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Orange County Main Library
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Telephone: 919-245-2539
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Hilton Garden Inn
131 Columbus Ave
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Enjoy a family-friendly movie and a slice or two of pizza. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $5/person. $2 for ages 2 and younger

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The Halle Cultural Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Ages 11 and older with special needs help support the Town of Cary's annual toy drive by donating an unwrapped toy for a child in need. Make cards for the holiday cards for these...

Cost: $2/resident, $3/nonresident

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
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Transformative stories through the mists of time adapted from "1001 Arabian Nights" and performed by Emerson's 10th grade class.  Recommended for audiences age 10 and up. For...

Cost: $5-$12

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Emerson Waldorf School
6211 New Jericho Road
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It’s the summer before the 1904 World’s Fair and the three Smith sisters are filled with anticipation. But the year brings turmoil as family life interferes with their newfound chances...

Cost: Adults: $15 Seniors: $10 Students and children: $5 Family 4-pack

Where:
William Peace University, Kenan Auditorium
15 E Peace St
Raleigh, NC  27604
View map »


Sponsor: William Peace University
Contact Name: Charles Machalicky
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Show Less...

We will be conducting a food drive during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get involved...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

Celebrate collards at the State Farmers Market.

Cost: Free

Where:
State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Website »

More information

Come share the excitement as Park West Village hosts Winter Wonderland in The District. Kids of all ages will enjoy our Magical Winter Lights Paintscaping, featuring colorful holiday lights...

Cost: Free

Where:
Park West Village
Village Market Place
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Park West Village
Contact Name: Conner
Website »

More information

Talented dance students perform the lavishly staged holiday ballet alongside guest artists from Carolina Ballet. All ages. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $12-$27

Where:
Fletcher Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

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More information

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Cost: $5-$12

Where:
Emerson Waldorf School
6211 New Jericho Road
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View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Website »

More information

It’s the summer before the 1904 World’s Fair and the three Smith sisters are filled with anticipation. But the year brings turmoil as family life interferes with their newfound chances...

Cost: Adults: $15 Seniors: $10 Students and children: $5 Family 4-pack

Where:
William Peace University, Kenan Auditorium
15 E Peace St
Raleigh, NC  27604
View map »


Sponsor: William Peace University
Contact Name: Charles Machalicky
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Our seventh annual food drive will be held during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
View map »


Telephone: 919-662-2850
Website »

More information

We will be conducting a food drive during the month of November. All donations benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina (www.foodbankcenc.org). We encourage you to get involved...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
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More information

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Website »

More information

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Cost: $12-$27

Where:
Fletcher Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 E. South St.
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View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (60+ yrs), $3/Child (7-16yrs), Free/Child (6yrs & younger)

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

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Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Talented dance students perform the lavishly staged holiday ballet alongside guest artists from Carolina Ballet. Show times are at noon and 5 p.m. All ages. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $12-$27

Where:
Fletcher Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Come share the excitement as Park West Village hosts Winter Wonderland in The District. Kids of all ages will enjoy our Magical Winter Lights Paintscaping, featuring colorful holiday lights...

Cost: Free

Where:
Park West Village
Village Market Place
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Park West Village
Contact Name: Conner
Website »

More information

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Sponsor: East Cloud Kungfu, LLC
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Cost: $5-$12

Where:
Emerson Waldorf School
6211 New Jericho Road
Brown Wing
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
View map »


Website »

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It’s the summer before the 1904 World’s Fair and the three Smith sisters are filled with anticipation. But the year brings turmoil as family life interferes with their newfound chances...

Cost: Adults: $15 Seniors: $10 Students and children: $5 Family 4-pack

Where:
William Peace University, Kenan Auditorium
15 E Peace St
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: William Peace University
Contact Name: Charles Machalicky
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2019-20 Education Guide offers 718 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. In our 2019-20 issue, explore 1,028 resources for family fun.