An only child clearly has the advantage of always being Mom and Dad’s favorite. When there is more than one child in the family, favoritism seems to be an abyss parents can’t escape even when they try.
For Christmas this year, one of my daughters sent a bottle of wine with a custom label that read, “Favorite Daughter.” Her verbal instructions were to leave it out where her sister would see it. For almost all holidays including every Mother’s Day in recent memory, her sister’s gifts and cards are accompanied by the message, “I know I’m your favorite” or words to that effect.
Although their messages are laced with humor and both daughters are married with children of their own, being the favored child remains front and center. As a parent, I made a huge effort not to show partiality. A somewhat futile effort: No matter how hard a parent works at equality, children have their own perceptions. You can say, “I treated you all the same,” but in reality, it is impossible. They are different ages, have different needs, and exhibit unique personalities that call for, at the least, different approaches to meeting those needs.
Amanda Kowal and Jennifer Kroll of the University of Missouri and Laurie Kramer of the University of Illinois found that meeting the needs of one of your children is far more acceptable to the other children if they perceive the “special” treatment as fair. If parents explain why they are spending more time with a sibling after dinner helping with homework or attending one child’s sporting events and not another’s, for example, the “untended” child will be more accepting. According to the study, which appeared in the Journal of Family Psychology, parents also reduce their chance of hurting their own relationship with a child when the special treatment of a sibling is explained. Children who understand why a brother or sister receives differential treatment are less likely to harbor negative feelings toward the parents.
Laurie Kramer adds, “You’d think it would be clear when a child is receiving more positive or negative attention, and why that might be happening, but families don’t seem to talk much about these differences unless someone complains.” When parents don’t explain, children form their own ideas, many of which are long-lasting.
Favoritism lingers into adulthood
At a holiday dinner I sat across from Jane in her 40s and Gina in her late 50s, two women I had met at other festivities over the years. I couldn’t help but hear their conversation. Jane is the oldest of three (two girls and a boy); she talked about growing up as her mother’s least favorite child. “We didn’t agree on anything and butted heads constantly.”
Gina, who has two younger sisters, said that she was her mother’s, but not her father’s, favorite. “That caused all kinds of grief for me.” Gina talked about her middle sister who still feels ignored and left out: “I think she flounders in life because my parents didn’t pay much attention to her.”