Talking About Parental Favouritism

As parents, we are not supposed to have a favourite child. But keeping silent about these feelings is probably not a great idea either.

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Having a favourite child is a big no-no in parenting, and, judging by an astounding scarcity of research, it’s certainly not a topic that we like to discuss. Recently, there has been a buzz about this topic (pun intended, the guy’s name is Buzz for Pete’s sake), with many people saying you should never blog about having a favourite child. With which I completely agree – blogging is a very public platform and should be treated very carefully, particularly by parents.

Do you have a favourite child?

But lets talk a bit about having a favourite child and what that means. In his book “The Sibling Effect”, Jeffrey Kluger claims that 95% of parents have a favourite child. An article reviewing scientific literature written by Dr. Jill Suitor and her colleagues gives a less dramatic number: they say that between a third and two thirds of families show preferential treatment of at least one child (the figures vary because different measures are employed in different studies – for example, children tend to disclose preferential treatment more often, so studies that ask children about preferential treatment will have higher rates). Still, it sounds like it’s quite the common phenomenon.

Why do you have a favourite child?

What are some of the reasons a parent would favour one of his or her children? As Jill Smokler puts it, sometimes our favourite child is the one who pisses us off the least at that moment. Birth order plays a role – specifically, the middle child is the one who is the least favourite (statistically speaking). Gender plays a role – apparently mothers prefer their first-born sons and fathers prefer their youngest daughters (I couldn’t find the research that is mentioned in the article – but that could be the source of the “daddy’s girl” and “momma’s boy” myth). However, another study found that the children themselves report being closer to their same-sex parents. And of course, children who are more “difficult” (have more aggressive behaviours, more behavioural problems) tend to be less favoured. Interestingly, only correlational research has been done, so we can’t say which is the chicken and which is the egg.

In my opinion, the main factor is that illusive “goodness-of-fit” – the dynamic of the interaction between two personalities (the parent’s and the child’s) that sometimes get along better and sometimes get along less well. I know that I see a lot of me in my son, and sometimes it’s easier for me to understand him because I know how he feels when we go to a dance-class and all he wants to do is watch. I’m not saying he’s my favourite, I’m just saying sometimes it’s easier with him.

What does having a favourite child means?

There’s no clear effect for being a favourite child, it seems. However, there’s a clear and detrimental effect for being the “least favourite child”: lower levels of self-esteem and self-worth, and higher levels of aggression and depression. Which kind of sucks. But it’s important to remember that these things are never simple. There are many favourite children who are still aggressive or depressed or have low self-esteem, and there are many “least favourite” children who are fine, and even more resilient. So the fact that you like one of your kids a bit more doesn’t doom the other kid to a life of aggression and depression.

Why it’s important to talk about it

Here are my two cents. I think talking about is better than not talking about it. Because children know. They know which one is mommy’s favourite and which is daddy’s (my brother and I sure knew growing up, even though no one talked about it). They can feel it. What they don’t know is why. So they think it’s because something is wrong with them – they are not good enough, they are not loveable, or some other heart breaking reason. I think it’s important to explain to your children that you do love them, but that you just have to work harder on the relationship (I’m talking about 9-10 year olds, not preschoolers). Maybe it means spending some one-on-one time doing something you both like. Maybe it means making a conscious effort to give that child more affection, to be more patient with him, to stop and think before you say or do something when you are upset or angry.

What do you do to make your relationship with your child stronger?

@2015 - Gal Podjarny