Forging Through Favoritism
September 8th, 2010

I have a favorite child: IEP.  He is my smartest, funniest, cutest, and most affectionate child.  He is the most obedient and the most eager to please.  He is the most intuitive and the most insightful.  He is the most articulate.  He gives the best hugs and kisses.  He is my favorite child.

He is also my only child.

While I assume that the moment that Baby #2 arrives (no time soon, for those keeping score…) I will no longer have a favorite child.  I will have two children whom I love differently, but equally.  Always equally.  Right?  Not necessarily.

According to Dr. Ellen Libby, author of The Favorite Child, it is actually quite common for parents to favor one child over another.  The conclusions she draws in this article are not surprising: specifically that favoritism can cause depression in both the favored and unfavored child, and that favoritism in general affects the entire family. 

What the article doesn’t address (perhaps the book does, but I haven’t read it so I can’t comment) is what causes such favoritism in the first place.  What is the catalyst for favoritism?  And how early does it start?  Does it begin when a child adopts hobbies and outlooks that are similar to the parent’s and helps the parent to relate to that child?  Does it begin when a child is a colicky baby and the frustration the parent feels during that phase is sustained over time?  Is the same child always the favored child?  Or does it vary over time?

These questions fascinate me.  I wonder how many parents will admit to anyone, or even to themselves, that the decks in their hearts are not stacked equally.  It must be a gut wrenching reality to face.  But I suspect that facing it is the only way to keep it from poisoning your entire family.  I also suspect that dealing with such psychological undercurrents is a major task.  Libby offers some tactical pointers, but while they may be valid I find her proposed antidotes to be trite:

  • Listen to each other. 
  • Respect different viewpoints. 
  • Strive to accept the truth of different perceptions. 
  • Work deliberately at not being defensive. 
  • Feel safe to express words of personal truth. 

“Feel safe to express words of personal truth”???  Really??  I have to believe that handing down that little gem to a 13-year-old sitting on the “unfavored” side of the equation is probably as valuable as telling him to “harness his inner calm and stay tuned to his feelings of worth” or some such nonsense.  Wholly abstract and completely impossible to interpret.  

I don’t know what Baby #2 will be like.  I have no idea how my feelings for my children will differ.  I like to believe that I will love and care for them equally, and that the burden of favoritism will not exist in our family.  I cannot be so arrogant, however, as to assume that such biases could never happen to me.  And I hope that such awareness (and, if I’m being honest, a bit of fear) will help me to identify and address such preferences the moment they surface.  I am not a perfect parent (news flash: “Goodnight Goon” scares the bejeezus out of toddlers…) but I hope that in admitting my imperfections I can mitigate the damage they cause.

12 Responses to “Forging Through Favoritism”

  1. E Says:

    I strongly disagree with Ms. Libby. You may “like” a child better one day, but you’re just as apt to change directions the next day, hour, or minute and like child #2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 better. The idea of having a favorite is beyond my imagination. There are times I think authors such as Libby put a stamp of approval on a concept causing it to surface when in actuality it might never have entered your mind. Perhaps she was struggling for a subject on which to pontificate. It’s harder to get on your soapbox about potty training or teething. Even the most disruptive child will melt your heart with a funny comment or his/her own one-of-a-kind expression. You surround each child with love. Rest easy on this aspect of parenting… simply won’t exist.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I’m with the commenter above–I change favorites on an hourly basis!

    I also agree with you, Gale, that “complete honesty” about such things with a child is kind of a disturbing idea.

  3. Gale Says:

    Thanks, E! Your perspective always causes me to take heart. I read things like this and as a still-rookie parent they scare me. She makes it sound as though I need to brace myself for this toxic battle in my head. I’m glad to hear that this isn’t consistent with your experience.

  4. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Such an interesting topic, and conversation. I am fascinated by the question of favoritism and also of “equal love.” What really does it mean to love two things, two creatures, equally? Is love truly something that can be quantified, or compared?

  5. Gale Says:

    Aidan – Exactly. How much do I love IEP? The only way I can quantify it is to spread my arms wide and say, “THIS much.” I love him as far as my mind and body can reach, which is utterly abstract. And in some way that feels right. I love him in a way that can only be measured by silly child-like expressions of quantity. Anything more finite just belittles the whole concept.

  6. Laura H. Says:

    I agree with E! Sometimes people (even academics) are just looking for topics that will get them some attention. I do not have a favorite child. There are moments and days and specific ages when I connect better with each of them. And as for telling them my feelings, I always tell them both they are my favorite – my favorite little girl, my favorite little boy, my favorite 6 year old, my favorite 3 year old, my favorite son, my favorite daughter, my favorite first grader, etc. And I mean it! There is a moment when you first hold your second child after s/he is born and you realize your heart just doubled in size because you can love the second (and third and fourth) just as much as you love the first. Now that phenomenom is more worthy of an academic article in my opinion! In our house we call it, “I love you to infinity and beyond!”

  7. Kate Says:

    My mother lived by the I love you equally creed, but treated us differently. Her mom, she thought, always favored the younger kids. And though we only saw my grandparents a few weeks a year, my mom went into overdrive (still does) to “even it out” for the older child. Being the younger one, this made no sense to me at all. And she has tried to explain it to me since. It still hurts. Deeply.

    Having two… Well, of course they are different. My feelings about them are different. Their ages and appropriate behaviors are different. Their needs are different. Separate isn’t equal. I don’t say you get the same exact thing to my kids. I give what they need. There are some things that are quantifiable: allowance, gifts. These we are rigidly equal about. But that isn’t love. I LOVE both my kids in ways that defy writing. Deeply. Individually.

  8. Lori Says:

    I consider myself more religious than academic in regards to topics like this. As my husband and I anxiously await the arrival of our second son (in the next month!!!) I am humbled, again, by God’s design of the human heart. I love my 20 month old son with every ounce of my soul. I did not know that kind of love until I held him in my arms and that love grows every day he does something adorable, kind, loving, funny, frustrating, etc. A huge part of my excitement about my second son is that I have an understanding of that all-encompassing love. I marvel at the fact my heart, which I would have guessed was full to the brim, is so ready to love another child, equally, wholly.

    I am also a teacher. In the classroom, we joke about favorites, teacher’s pets. I would never say that I was equally excited to teach all of the 250 plus students in my classes throughout the years. As an educator, my job is to treat each student equally: provide them equal opportunities, support, respect, encouragement, and sometimes, most importantly, consequences. All of those things look different with each student, each day, each school year. There were some that I cared about and liked more than others, yes, but I feel that’s different than my own children, with whom God blessed my husband and I.

    The thought that I may have a favorite child has never entered my head as we continue to form our family and how we live day to day. I’m sure it’s a combination of several factors that I draw this conclusion: Love is the driving force behind any familial relationship. No parent would ever say they love one child more than another, but that may not be what “favoritism” is… Personalities blend and clash, that is human nature. It is those less than easy times, when that child doesn’t quite listen as well as another or whatever the case may be, that LOVE should drive the parent to think “What do I need to do differently to create a successful experience for my kid whom I want to be a confident and contributing person in this world.” Being a parent is a selfless thing and again I say, I am humbled to have the opportunity to be able to create a world for each of my children that allows them to feel loved, respected, successful and happy. The kind of world they will one day create for their children.

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Very compelling topic. I remember that my greatest worry, when pregnant with #2, was that I couldn’t possibly love another child as much as I loved #1. The moment #1 appeared, I knew my heart would expand for as many children as I would ever be privileged to have. I would have loved more.

    I never think in terms of favorites. Never have. And I’ve definitely parented each of my sons differently, though they’re close in age. They’re dramatically different kids, thus, they’ve needed different things from me.

    I have thought of who was driving me crazy, who was worrying me, who was helping rather than causing consternation – on any given day. Or make that hour. Yep. In the early years, that would be about right. ;)

  10. Gale Says:

    Lori – I love your final point here, that when we clash with family members over large or small issues it is love that pushes us through the hard times, helps us to work through conflict, and enables us to find the best in the person and the situation. Thanks for your insights.

  11. Cathy Says:

    This is a tough one for me because I think I do have a favorite and I think it stems from being a young, inexperienced mother. My first was a very colicky baby and it was hard to deal with. I had no family and no experience to draw on. Fast-forward three years when I had my second – he was such an easy baby. No colic. Slept well. He also had an episode where he stopped breathing at 4 months and almost died. That experience, of almost losing him, made me so much closer to him. I don’t favor as in rules don’t evenly apply to both, but one child is much easier to parent than the other. To be fair to me – no flames please – I try really hard to be conscious of this and adjust my behavior accordingly. I do love them both (and actually I have three now!) but one is just so hard to parent – we are in conflict too much.

  12. Gale Says:

    Cathy – Thanks for your honesty here. While I have certainly been buoyed by the other commenters’ assertion that this particular affliction is not that common, I know it still happens. And I really appreciate your willingness to be candid about your experience. I don’t know how old your kids are, so this may be out on the horizon a bit, but maybe your challenges with your first child will abate when he/she is a bit older (and not living at home?) and you don’t have to actively “parent” him/her so much. Perhaps the tables will turn when you can have an adult relationship that isn’t saddled with some of these burdens of parenthood.

    Again, thank you for your perspective here. I truly wish you the best with this.