Who Is the Favorite Child?
The Golden Child Is In Plain Sight
If you want to start a ruckus at any family gathering, just ask who the favorite child is. Parents may fool themselves that they are being evenhanded or secretive in how they play favorites, but the kids know, outsiders can see it, and the proof is often in plain sight.
Prior to her divorce, one of my relatives had a huge family portrait posted prominently above her fireplace. To the onlooker, there could be no doubt which of her three offspring was the golden child. The focal point of the photo was their youngest, a toddler dressed only in a cloth diaper. The four other family members—but most especially the parents—gazed at the little Messiah with such adoration that our extended family refers to this as "the Jesus portrait."
But let's not be too quick to call anyone out here. I come from a large family with a long history of playing favorites. Perhaps you do, too.
Which child in the family did YOUR parents favor?
What's with All the Inequity?
While Mom may claim to love everyone the same, research suggests that preferential treatment in families is common. For example, one study found that 70% of fathers and 74% of mothers acknowledged favoring one child.1
So what's with all the inequity? While psychologists are quick to point out that love and like are different, some kids routinely demand more parental patience and resourcefulness due to their personality or frequency of acting out. As a result, parenting them is simply more difficult and stressful. Your rowdy middle schooler caught mooning motorists from the back of the school bus takes more out of you emotionally than your quiet honor roll student.
Favoritism can additionally be influenced by perceived similarity, with parents showing a preference for the offspring who is naturally warm and affectionate or is a parental "mini-me." Fair or not, relationships simply flow more easily when important personality traits are shared. Research meanwhile shows that it's similar values that explain mothers' favoritism towards adult children.2
While some offspring are enduring favorites, an affinity for one child over another can frequently be fluid, shifting with a child's age, developmental stage, and individual needs. Favoritism is more common in both first and particularly last-born children.3
Unequal treatment is also more common in families experiencing stress, such as financial problems, separation/divorce, or a family medical crisis. Parents may not have the emotional resources to divide themselves equally. Alternatively, they may feel guilty in the midst of a family crisis or may attempt to compensate for some factor.
For example, my husband was only three years old when his father experienced a massive stroke. While his two older siblings were in school and his dad was in rehab relearning how to walk, talk, and care for himself, my husband and his mother developed a strong bond that would make him her lifelong favorite. For all he missed in other aspects of his youth, he enjoyed the devotion of his mother.
Costs of Favoritism
Having a golden child in the family is not without its costs. It can promote sibling rivalry and fuel long-term conflict within families. Favoritism can also erode self-esteem (especially of less favored), set children up for depression, and contribute to children's behavioral problems and substance abuse.
Particularly when one child is consistently singled out, exercising preferential treatment can invoke guilt in the favored child while making the unfavored ones feel "less than." In adulthood, the preferred child may experience more stress as a result of increased expectations of assistance to aging parents and poorer relationships with siblings. Thus, being the golden child may be a deceptively sweet deal.
7 Signs That Parents Have a Favorite Child
Signs of favoritism can be found in
- how parents think and feel about their children
- how they behave around them, and
- how they describe and discuss them.
Here are seven signs that parents have a favorite child. How many do you recognize?
1. Parents talk about their favorite child more to other people.
The parent consistently broadcasts the favored child's achievements (e.g., sports, academics) or interjects them into the conversation to such an extent that an outsider may not realize the family has other children. They describe the preferred child in more detail and discuss what is going on in their lives. (After all, isn't everyone as interested in their favorite as they are?) Anyone who talks substantively with the parent receives a thorough update on the golden child's life.
2. Parents provide the favorite with more focused one-on-one interaction.
The parent interacts more frequently with his or her favorite, taking a more personal interest in them and lavishing more abundant and enthusiastic praise. They carve out more one-on-one time to dedicate to nurturing the parent/child relationship, whether it's reading to a young favorite child or engaging in meaningful conversations with an adult favorite child.
3. Rules and expectations are relaxed for favorite children.
Whether it's curfews, chores, or expectations for good behavior, parents allow favorite children to get by with more. They grant them more privileges, overlook their poor behavior more frequently, and make excuses for them. Punishments of favorite children tend to be less harsh, and they may also enjoy fewer chores and chores that are not as strenuous or unpleasant. Leave the tasks of shoveling snow, cleaning bathrooms, and taking out the trash for the other kids.
4. Favorites enjoy material advantages.
Mom and Dad are always looking to help their favorite out, and they put their wallet where their heart is. Parents bestow the preferred child with more expensive gifts, slip them more spending money, or dole out other material benefits. In this way, it pays to be the darling of the family. The issue can truly create deep conflict when inequitable divisions are written into parents' wills, however.
5. In conflicts between siblings, parents consistently seem to adopt the favorite sibling's perspective.
This taking sides is the case even when the golden child is objectively wrong. The less favored children feel like they matter less as a result.
6. The family revolves around making the favorite happy.
There is greater accommodation of the favorite's needs, schedule, and preferences. If the favorite is a poor planner and consistently runs late, for example, the rest of the family's schedule may be held hostage to their erratic and shifting timetable. If the favorite is on a restricted diet, chances are the rest of the family is experimenting with a modified diet now, too.
7. The favorite child sets the bar for comparison.
When parents use their favorite as the standard, they either explicitly or implicitly communicate to their other children, "Why can't you be more like them?" This is an especially unhealthy habit. Children are individuals who have the right to explore life paths that are different from a model sibling.
It Sucks to Be Second Best
When it comes to family favorites, few parents are as blatant about their preferences as my grandmother. At a family event with all of her adult children gathered around she pointed to my mother, one of her three daughters and announced, "I love you," with a well-pleased smile. You could sense the "but" ready to roll off her tongue. "But I REALLY love him," she clarified, reaching to hug my mother's youngest brother.
Sometimes there are no words for the obvious, for what was long suspected. Favoritism is common, can be fluid or constant over the years, and is not without consequences. But just because you're an adult with both children and grandchildren of your own doesn't mean it doesn't suck to be second-best.
Tell Us About Favoritism in Your Family in the Comments Section Below
1Shebloski, B., Conger, K. J., & Widaman, K. F. (2005). Reciprocal links among differential parenting, perceived partiality, and self-worth: a three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 19(4), 633-642. doi:10.1037/0893-318.104.22.1683
2Jill Suitor, J., Gilligan, M., Peng, S., Con, G., Rurka, M., & Pillemer, K. (2016). My Pride and Joy? Predicting Favoritism and Disfavoritism in Mother-Adult Child Relations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78(4), 908-925. doi:10.1111/jomf.12288
3Steussy, L. (2018, April 6). Turns out parents really do have a favorite kid. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2018/04/05/turns-out-parents-really-do-have-a-favorite-kid-study/
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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