Playing favourites has lasting effects

By Christy Laverty on March 25, 2013
"They like you best.”

“You’re their favourite.”

“They’ll say yes to you. They always say yes to you.”

Are these words the childhood ribbing and teasing of siblings, or feelings of anger and resentment over favouritism? True or not, they reflect the perception of many children, and continue to be the memories of many adults.

All parents love their children equally right? That’s what most would say if you ask them. Playing favourites is a bit of a taboo topic for many people. For example, just insinuating a parent shows favouritism to one child over another is enough to spark anger or guilt in even the best of parents. There are powerful norms in society that say we are expected to love our children and benefit them equally. But is it really possible?

A recent study by researchers at Cornell and Purdue University shows the impact of playing favourites can have lasting effects. Gerontologist Karl Pillemer, along with Purdue sociologist Jill Suitor, looked at the impact that favouritism, or the mere perception of it, has on all children in the family, including the so called “golden child” and the “black sheep”.

In the survey, 275 mothers in their 60s and 70s with at least two living adult children were asked which of their children they felt closest to, who they thought would be their caregiver in old age and which child they argued with the most often. Results found that:
  • 70 percent of mothers named one child to whom they felt closest.
  • 79 percent specified which child would be the most likely caregiver. 
  • 73 percent specified which child they argued and disagreed with the most. 
  • 30 percent of moms said they weren’t closer to any one child, but only 15 percent of children said the same about their own mother.

“It is very common that a parent will want to spend more time with child A but might rely on child B for help in a crisis and might talk to child C about a personal problem,” says Karl. “Most parents have some level of preference among their children, but the job of a parent is to not show those preferences as much as possible.” Problems arise when parents can’t keep those feelings of favouritism to themselves. Karl’s research shows there is a relationship between obvious favouritism or differential treatment and poor outcomes for kids from early childhood to adolescence to adulthood. “It is surprisingly consistent, all the kids in the families tend to do worse,” he says. There are higher externalizing symptoms like aggression and higher internalizing symptoms like depression and anxiety.

Many of us have memories or experiences of favouritism. Mother of two Ester Randall* says her parents played favourites. It was that favouritism, she says, that created tension between her and her sisters. “They always protect me because I am the baby, but they also throw it in my face saying that I had it easy. They used to call me princess.”

Ester says her sisters blame the way their lives turned out on their parents. Now that Ester has two children of her own, she is very aware of the impact of favouritism and is promising her children, and herself, that she will work every day to make sure she doesn’t play favourites.

“It’s human nature to have stronger connections to some people than others. You can love all your children equally, but you may find one child gives you less stress and you get along better with one because you have more in common,” she says.

Karl’s data supports Ester’s experience. Playing favourites not only creates tension between children and parents, but also among siblings. Siblings often resent each other and harbour feelings of guilt.

That is just one of the reasons Deborah Samuel* is working to level the playing field. She says she does play favourites with her two boys, ages nine and seven, admitting she has a sweet spot for her youngest. “He is my last child and always seems to get the short end of the stick with hand-me-down clothes and his brother bugging him.” She says she tries not to baby him but admits it’s a challenge.

Eden Stuart* also has two boys, ages 17 and 14, and recently had to deal with favouritism in her own house. The kids were asked to step up and help out when Eden’s husband was recovering from surgery. Even though both kids were pitching in, Eden says their youngest son went above and beyond. But there was a problem. The motivation wasn’t purely to help out, it was also an attempt to “stick it” to his brother because he was getting more positive attention. “I got sucked up in the favouritism wave. Once we saw what was happening, we changed how we praised our son so that his help around the house wasn’t seen as a game or a way to one-up his brother with mom and dad,” says Eden.

“I don’t think it’s ever okay to play favourites,” says Eden, “however, it’s okay to celebrate each child’s individual accomplishments. There’s a difference.”

Parenting educator Barbara Coloroso says it’s important to remember parenting isn’t about being perfect. She acknowledges parents play favourites, often because they have to. “What we are doing is meeting their needs at this point in their lives,” says Barbara. It isn’t strange to find that parents are drawn to one child over another. Sometimes it might be the child who is different, or they may connect with a child who is so much like them and find the other one hard to take. “It is essential you recognize your feelings and talk about them,” she says.

Ultimately every parent wants all of their children to feel loved, cherished, understood and celebrated. Some days that can be easier said than done. It is about learning to love and relate to each other, says Barbara.

Parents need to know it’s normal to treat kids differently because each child will have a unique relationship with them. To try to treat each child the same isn’t possible, practical or effective. Says Barbara, “I have told my kids ‘you are so lucky you don’t have a perfect mother.’ One day my oldest said ‘you are so lucky you don’t have perfect kids either.’ I’ve told them that their job is to be a better parent than I was.”

5 Expert tips

Communicate

Manitoba parent and social worker Trevor Arsenault says talk to children about how to show love to each other in different ways. “We need to be aware of what each other’s love language is.”

Be aware

Be aware of the relationships in your family, your own feelings and how they can impact your children. Karl Pillemer acknowledges it can be hard not to differentiate among your children, but be aware of those feelings and try not to demonstrate them.

Wonder

Put yourself in your child’s shoes to understand what they might be feeling and thinking. Author and parenting educator Barbara Coloroso says wondering is a great tool. “I wonder if this kid feels left out. I wonder if I am doing too much with this child. If we ask ourselves those things, we will be more critical in a very positive way of what we are doing.”

Watch your words

Even on a small scale, parents can avoid making direct verbal comparisons between their children. “You want to do things when your children are young that will lay the groundwork for 20 or 30 years of relationships as adults,” says Karl.

Remember the impact

“Kids absolutely remember and it can cause difficulty later in life. Memories and actual parental favouritism seem to have a very profound impact on a person’s life course,” says Karl.

*names changed for privacy reasons

Christy Laverty is a freelance writer, blogger and social media enthusiast. She lives in Burlington, Ont., with her artistic husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 9.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2013.

By Christy Laverty| March 25, 2013

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