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
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.