Parents are human. This means that not only will they NOT be able to admit that they ‘favor one child over another,’ but also that they WILL favor one child over another.
What is important to understand about this ‘favoring’ has nothing to do with love. It is quite simply the raw truth that there will always be people in this world, whether related or otherwise, that you mesh with more easily. Sometimes, these people you mesh better with, or against – are your very own children. The problem occurs when parents who seem to mesh with one child over the other, begin actually performing political type favors forgetting the laws of nepotism, that end up hurting the child whose relationship may not come so easily. However, surprisingly – favoring children also hurts the children that are favored. Research by the American Psychological Association indicates that children thrive the most in families where favoritism is not evident.
So what is a parent to do? After all, you’re only human.
According to sociological researcher Jill Suitor, favoritism is evident in 2/3rds of all families. In some instances, favoritism, at its root which by definition entitles the ‘favored child’ to more time spent with parents, more affection, more privileges, less discipline, or even in dysfunctional families, less abuse, is not without grave consequences to ALL the children involved. Yet in many situations, the favoritism is warranted. For instance, families with a newborn will obvious ‘favor’ the newborn at the outset. Parents with disabled children normally show more signs of favoritism towards the disabled child. This same type of ‘necessary favoritism’ can and does occur when a child is sick. The difference is that in these situations, parents can easily explain it to the other children, based on a needs perspective.
Additionally, it is often common for parents to favor their same gender children. Often, kids can write this off as acceptable because the parent and child obviously share more common interests with one another. Perhaps father and son like to fish, while mother and daughter prefer to shop. (Stereotypical examples, but you get the point). After a while, the relationship between the parent and child who spends the most time together may seem to blossom, which can lead to hints of favoritism. Normal? Sure! Interestingly, while mothers and daughters are often prone to having serious disagreements with one another, favoritism can still rear its ugly head in the form of discipline equality. Perhaps mom feels dad is being too harsh on the daughter, and mom steps in to lessen the blow because as a female, she can relate to how her daughter is feeling. The same is true if a mom tried to discipline her son and dad steps in saying, “Let boys be boys!” This empathetic form of gender favoritism is ever present in families, and is often seen as acceptable.
Most often – especially in households with older children, favoritism becomes a problem in the form of allowances and discipline. This occurs when the favoritism is due to behavioral preferences. No two children act exactly the same way, and quite often parents are harder on a child who has behavioral issues than they are another child that perhaps “stays out of trouble!” Sure, it may be necessary – but if the ‘bad kid’ sees mom and dad not disciplining the ‘good kid’ for the SAME negative behavior, it can make the situation at home much, much worse.
The repercussions of favoritism are fierce. Not only can the outward favoring of one child set up a battle ground for sibling rivalry, but it can also cause a great deal of marital damage, especially if the parents often fight about the situation. And psychologists say it goes even further than that. Not only will the less favored child become rebellious, emotionally distraught, angry, and resentful – but also is also more prone to depression, mental illness, and drug use as the years pass. The favored child in turn, feels a tremendous amount of guilt and becomes unable to forge strong relationships with his or her siblings. Sadly, these problems can extend a lifetime.
In a family, it is easy to be happy and fair when all is well. However, as parents find out past the initial newborn and baby phase, children’s personalities begin to emerge. Sure, you love your child no matter what, but one is bound to be more difficult to deal with. The favoritism starts out innocently enough, but can eventually be like a poison that seeps into all the walls of the family structure.
It is important that parents maintain a strongly enforced and level playing field for ALL their children. Even if a mom or dad tends to have an easier time handling and bonding with one child over the other – the rules must remain consistent. Children depend on parents to offer a stable environment, where they know what to expect from mom and dad at every turn. When parents begin utilizing their closeness with a child as a barometer for how to handle parental duties – they set up the children to feel the effects of favoritism.
While most of this information may seem a bit clinical, especially since favoritism is a matter of the heart – it is important to realize that favoritism to some extent is normal and natural between parents and children. If you allow yourself to be manipulated by guilt or are constantly trying to ‘make things up’ to one child for being seen as unfair or favoring, you can end up on a teeter totter of parental guilt. Instead, be straightforward with your children, and accept the fact (without guilt) that you may be closer to one child than another. Remember, it doesn’t mean that you love them more.
However, it is the parents who hold the power to ensure that they are able to always provide equality for their children, especially in their own home. The bottom line is that you love ALL of your children equally - but differently. This means making a point of not just comparing children to one another, but of appreciating all the ways that they are different. Trying to be fair, at least as much possible – and listening to your children if they say things like, “You like sissy better than me,” are cornerstones to establishing parental-child relationships that fully support the healthy development of all children, without favoritism.