Playing Favorites?

Playing Favorites?

How Parents Can Avoid Family Favoritism

Published: May 28, 2019
By: Sandi Schwartz

Do you ever play favorites with your kids?

Maybe you spend more time with one child or are more affectionate to one over another. Or maybe you give additional privileges to certain children or discipline them differently. Whether you do it intentionally or accidentally, you are not alone. According to Psychology Today, favoritism happens in about one- to two-thirds of American homes.

There are many reasons why parents may favorite one child over another, some more understandable than others. First, birth order plays a large role in how children are treated. Typically, first- and last-born children are favored over middle children because middle ones never get to experience being the only child living at home with their parents. Overall, studies show that first-born children get the most privileges and last-born children receive the most affection. 

Also, the child’s personality and behavior can influence how parents treat them. In general, parents are more affectionate with children who are pleasant and loving, and discipline more frequently the children who misbehave.

Gender can play a role in favoritism, too. In patriarchal cultures, parents clearly favor sons over daughters. In other cases, parents may favor the girls because they tend to be friendlier, more loving and less aggressive than boys. It is quite common for parents to spend more time with and feel particularly connected to a child of the same gender. Finally, in cases of divorce and remarriage, parents typically favor their biological children over their step-children.

Some reasons for favoritism are widely accepted. When parents bring home a new baby, it is expected that their attention will be focused on the newborn and that the older children may feel neglected temporarily. Also, when there are sick or special-needs children in the home, parents will spend more time caring for them. In these cases, it is important for parents to explain to the “less favored” children why this is happening to assure them that it’s nothing personal and that they still love them just as much as the child who needs the extra attention.

Sadly, both less-favored and favored children can suffer during childhood and into adulthood. Those who feel secondary can experience depression, aggressiveness, low self-esteem, relationship issues and poor academic performance. These issues can even last once they have grown up and moved out of their parents’ house. Siblings who believed their mother favored or rejected them were more likely to be depressed in middle age, according to a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.  

Believe it or not, favored children can also struggle from being in that role for a long time. They may feel pressure to uphold their parents’ expectations of them. They may also fail to maintain relationships with friends and significant others because they have trouble finding people who will give them as much love and attention as their parents did. It can also be difficult for the favored child to maintain a positive relationship with their siblings, who may be bitter and jealous of the favoritism in the home. Sadly, if the issue is not resolved, these sibling relationships can continue to be strained well into adulthood.

A recent  study at Brigham Young School of Family Life revealed that younger children tend to be more affected by parental favoritism. The research involved data from 300 families with two teenage children. To measure levels of favoritism, responses from children and parents were reviewed. The children were asked about their relationship with their parents and parents were asked how much warmth and conflict they experienced with their children. 

The results found that if younger siblings feel they are not favored, then the relationship with their parents is strained. However, whether older siblings feel favored or not does not seem to have a major impact on the relationship. Researchers explain that it is the social comparison of one sibling to another that is the real problem with favoritism. Younger children struggle more because parents typically compare younger children to older children, not the other way around. 

Most parents worry that they are playing favorites at one time or another, and are not sure how to address it. A parent’s first instinct may be to treat all of their children exactly the same, but experts suggest that this approach can backfire. It is more important to love and support each of the children consistently, and to treat them fairly instead of equally. 

Children have their own unique personality, interests and needs, so it is best for parents to adjust how they are treated based on their individuality. The best thing a parent can do is to be aware of any favoritism in the family and try to nip it in the bud by being as fair as possible to each child. 

Children don’t want to be treated exactly like their siblings. Nor do they want to be put on a pedestal. They are happiest when they are treated differently, yet fairly.