Feature Story 01-Nov-2010
If you like to see the sparks fly occasionally, ask the parents around the table (though not in front of the children) who is their favourite child. It’s an uncomfortable topic for some. Be prepared for an adamant denial of any family favouritism, followed by a chorus of “I treat all my children equally”.
While horrified friends are still looking at you as if you have betrayed a basic tenet of parenthood, ask if their parents had a favourite child. You will likely be met with a different response. Most will identify the favourite sibling, perhaps themselves, and most can tell you why they were favoured.
Golden child or black sheep?
Melbourne clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist Dr Janet Hall is the author of six books on parenting including Fight-free Families (Finch 2001). She describes a ‘family favourite’ as “The child who is seen as the golden one – the family sees their good points and exaggerates them and doesn’t see their bad points. They are favoured with positive attention, quality time and indulged in economically and given special opportunities.”
Unpalatable as the idea is to parents, Australian and American research indicates that a majority of children can name the family favourite or the family ‘black sheep’.
Macquarie University associate professor of psychology Dr Julie Fitness surveyed 70 university students on the topic of family favourites.
“In line with the findings from other, larger-scale studies, nearly 69% of respondents reported there was a family favourite, with 48% reporting it was themselves, 35% reporting a brother, and 17% reporting a sister,” she says.
“The most frequently reported reasons for favouritism were birth order (33% first or last born, never the middle); sex (23% being the only boy or girl in the family); goodness (21% talent, attractiveness, likeability) and similarity to a parent (19%).”
On the other hand, 80% of respondents could also identify the family ‘black sheep’, sometimes in the extended family. Students who identified themselves in this category believed it was because they were different to the rest of the family – in looks, personality, talents or interests. They felt they did not belong.
The first born child
Single dad Andrew Thomas says his family is his world. He has two daughters aged 13 and 11 and a new partner who shares in the girls’ upbringing. Andrew frankly admits that his older daughter is his favourite because they just seem to get along better.
“We just have a better rapport. She is a self-reliant kid,” he says.
“She goes out of her way to help other people. She has earned my respect and I give it. She knows what she wants and knows how to get it.
“She’s a very good organiser. We don’t make many plans in our family without her having a say.”
Unlike many parents who have a favourite who is similar in many ways to themselves, Andrew says his younger child is more like him. He tends to push her hard to achieve because he feels he didn’t strive hard enough as he was growing up. Andrew tries hard not to show favouritism, but he suspects both daughters know who the favourite is. However, he believes they communicate well and can talk through any perceived ‘unfairness’. Andrew says his mum spoils the older girl sometimes with expensive presents, saying that she is more responsible and has earned it. Andrew then tries to make up the difference by giving the younger daughter a similar gift when she reaches the same age.
Is it possible to treat children equally?
Why do parents have difficulty with the idea of a family favourite? In my own family, we used to catch my mum offering the youngest of four the last piece of cheesecake and chorus loudly, “Well, you always were the favourite”! Mum would immediately launch into denial. It was a joke with a kernel of truth from adult children who felt comfortable acknowledging the fact. She loved us equally but treated us differently.
And now, as a mum, I understand her problem with the word ‘favourite’. My two girls have my unconditional love and support but they are two very different individuals. If I have avoided the pitfalls of rampant favouritism, I have certainly had times when one of them was least favoured because of her behaviour. The two-year-old who turned into a terrorist when the new baby arrived didn’t win any brownie points, but she did when she turned into a kid who never had to be nagged about homework. The chronically messy one still isn’t my favourite when I am in housekeeping mode, but she is when she makes us all laugh at the dinner table.
Is it wrong to have a favourite?
Washington DC clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Libby wrote The Favorite Child. She believes that most parents favour one child over another and that in itself is not a bad thing. It is just a fact.
“Each child is an individual and so is each parent,” she says.
“It is perfectly natural that a given child and a given parent have a special resonance; sometimes it is brief and sometimes it is more permanent.”
There are positives and negatives to being the favoured child. Favourites can develop more confidence, determination and effectiveness, and achieve well in their careers. But Dr Libby warns of the downside.
“There are dangers inherent in being the favourite child,” she says.“Unbridled confidence can be accompanied by feelings of entitlement and little, if any, realisation that there are consequences for actions. For example, Tiger Woods, an only child (and therefore automatically the favourite child) said in a recent press conference commenting on his affairs, ‘I played by a different set of rules’. The rules of character that applied to others did not apply to him. He believed that he could do what he wanted without being held accountable for his behaviour. He gave no thought to the consequences of his actions on the people around him.”
Dr Libby also points to the possibility that the favoured child may live their lives trying to maintain favoured status and, ultimately, come to resent it. They may crack under the pressure of living up to parental expectations.
“As children grow-up, a major task to be accomplished, necessary for their healthy functioning, is to learn to feel secure in the world without requiring ongoing parental affirmation,” she says.
Parental favouritism may have negative consequences for the siblings of the favoured child.
“Children who have never felt this affirmation ...often live their lives looking for this validation. They look to others to choose them as they had hoped their parents would,” Dr Libby says.
“Since no one can fill the void created by parental neglect or oversight, these unfavoured children often grow up insecure and not believing themselves lovable.”
Making every child feel special
Of course, parental favouritism is only a problem when one child receives preferential treatment consistently to the detriment of other children in the family. Most parents, quite rightly, don’t want to play favourites. They don’t want to show partiality. But they don’t necessarily treat all their children the same. Each child has a different personality and different needs, therefore different responses from their parents are called for. If parents explain the reasons why a new-born is receiving more attention, and another allowed a privilege at a certain age, children may well accept that it is fair. With no explanation, children may believe it is because they are unworthy or unloved.
Dr Libby says children can appreciate and accept special bonds in the family.
“They easily accept that the athletic parent and sibling have a unique bond; or the specialness that may exist between a parent and difficult sibling,” she says.
“When the favourite child status is rotated among children, all children are likely to feel the security of their parents’ love and not feel damaging resentment when other siblings are favoured.”
So favouritism may be a transient thing. Mum may favour the teenage daughter because they enjoy shopping together. Dad clicks with the ten-year-old soccer player and the daughter who is a computer whiz like him.
Minnesota mother of three Sue Wilson hit upon an idea that worked for her young family. She started a ‘Child of the Day’ rotation when her kids were in preschool. She found it stopped every argument over who gets the best seat, the last sweet, the first turn. She simply asked, “Who is Child of the Day?”
Relatives who play favourites
Perhaps you have mastered the art of making each of your children feel special at different times and for different reasons. They feel secure in your love and aren’t upset when it is a sibling’s turn in the limelight. But along come the grandparents with a different preference. What can you do when THEIR favourite receives too many expensive presents, too much attention and can do no wrong? It’s a problem faced in many Australian households at Christmas in particular.
Of course, unguarded favouritism in the form of unflattering comparisons, hurtful remarks and put downs are cruel and damaging to self-esteem. For the sake of your child, a calm but firm line needs to be taken.
But let’s assume that the relative loves all your children and would not intentionally hurt any of them. They may just enjoy the company of one over the other, feel more comfortable with a particular age group, or see a ‘carbon copy’ of a much-loved son or daughter. They may be unaware that others feel neglected or not have considered the possibility of spoiling the favoured child.
If you are generally on good terms, and feel you can remain calm and positive, you may wish to talk to them about the issue. Ask why they have developed a special bond with the child. Point out the positive things you see in this relationship. Then ask if they have noticed that the others are feeling a bit left out. Encourage them to talk about ways to improve the situation. Try to find opportunities for the grandparents to get to know the other children better. Agree on some guidelines for presents and maybe even suggest time spent doing something together like cooking with gran, or working in the garden with pop as an alternative to buying presents. Encourage your children to make things for their grandparents and talk to them on the phone, so the giving is not all one way.
If you feel a child is suffering and the situation does not improve despite your efforts it may be time to consider the professional help of a psychologist or family therapist.
Dr Libby sees no problem in having favourites – just make sure each child is made to feel special often. “If all children believed they were the favourite, we’d have a nation of confident, successful people,” she says.
Tips to survive and thrive this Christmas season
By Anne Hollonds, Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
- Budget well and plan ahead
- Try to work together as a team, rather than aim to be the ‘Masterchef’ yourself
- Have realistic expectations of yourself and of others
- Find time each day to ‘chill out’
- Spread your family visits out over a few days
- Practice forgiveness – it will make you feel better
- Limit your intake of alcohol – behaviour can get out of hand
- Listen and show respect
- Agree to disagree on issues Say thank you often