Who Is the Favorite Child?

Updated on June 29, 2019
FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway is a psychologist who comes from a large extended family with a long track record of playing favorites.

Parents often have a favorite child, no matter how much they deny it. Favoritism impacts how parents think, feel, and act towards their offspring. It also affects the kids. Here are the signs that Mom and Dad are playing favorites.
Parents often have a favorite child, no matter how much they deny it. Favoritism impacts how parents think, feel, and act towards their offspring. It also affects the kids. Here are the signs that Mom and Dad are playing favorites. | Source

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.

Reader Perspective

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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

Favoritism in families can be fluid depending on a child's age, developmental stage, and individual needs.
Favoritism in families can be fluid depending on a child's age, developmental stage, and individual needs. | Source

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.

Someone's playing favorites again.  Look at the facial expressions on the boys in the background.
Someone's playing favorites again. Look at the facial expressions on the boys in the background. | Source

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.

Favoritism is not without its costs.  It can encourage sibling rivalry as well as children's problems with self-esteem and depression.
Favoritism is not without its costs. It can encourage sibling rivalry as well as children's problems with self-esteem and depression. | Source

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

Can this dad divide his time and attention evenly?  It sucks to be second best.
Can this dad divide his time and attention evenly? It sucks to be second best. | Source


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:10.1037/0893-3200.19.4.633

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 FlourishAnyway


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      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 weeks ago from USA

        Devika - It's sad that so many middle children have that experience. I'm also the oldest.

      • profile image

        Devika Primic 

        2 weeks ago

        i am the oldest and the youngest is often the most cared for and loved. The middle child is the one who is affected in a negative way.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Shawindi - Thank you.

      • Shawindi Silva profile image

        Shawindi Silva 

        2 months ago from Sri lanka

        Great !!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Chitrangada - Those poor middle children. I'm an oldest and now it gives me a little sympathy for ones stuck in the middle struggling for some attention. Thank you for stopping by and for leaving such a long and thoughtful comment.

      • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

        Chitrangada Sharan 

        2 months ago from New Delhi, India

        What an excellent article! A must read for the parents and the parents to be.

        No one can deny, any of the points, that you have made above, ‘in their heart.’ But, no one will admit it, for sure. Whether the parents or their children admit it or not, but the favourite child syndrome, does exist in many families. This may be purely unintentional, but it is there.

        Let’s give the benefit of the phrase to the parents, ‘After all they are normal human beings, not God. They can make mistakes.

        As you have pointed out, all this can give rise to low self esteem, sibling rivalry, relationship issues, among children or when they become adults.

        Interestingly, in the poll, which you have given, most of the votes for the favourite child, has gone to the oldest child or the youngest child. So, we can understand that the middle child syndrome does also exist.

        Thanks for sharing this wonderful, thought provoking and valuable article.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Jo - You are the rare parent/grandparent to acknowledge this. Very self-aware. I'm always told that if I had more than one child I'd be terrible at playing favorites. I don't always mean to, but I am told I play favorites with neices and nephews and of course, with my cats.

      • jo miller profile image

        Jo Miller 

        2 months ago from Tennessee

        My sister-in-law once said about my mom that she had five 'only' children. She meant she indulged us all a little too much, but I always thought that was quite a compliment for my mother. I never felt she favored one of her children over another. My daughters, conversely, do accuse me of favoring one child or grandchild over another sometimes. And I'm probably guilty.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Linda - It's understandable that parents would devote extra time and attention to a sick child. Thank you for sharing a bit of your life.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Dora - There's no denying the treatment you receive every day. You're right. I didn't know you were an only child.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Your article has got me thinking about my own family. My younger sister was often ill and got a lot of attention from my mother as a result, but I don't think that my mother or father had a favorite child. You've chosen an interesting topic for an article, Flourish.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        2 months ago from The Caribbean

        No parent can say no to the signs you listed. Good job! I'm an only child, but I know that I'm not the favorite grandchild. Kids can figure it out, and even if the parents do not agree, what they perceive affects them as much as the facts.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        James - I'm glad you said something about grandparents. They can be very open about their favorites, as you mention.

        My grandmother has always been much worse about the favorite thing too. Some grandkids got chocolate Easter bunnies, and the rest did not. Even though she was poor, she put $100 each month away in special a bank account for one grandchild's education (there were eventually 19 or so grandchildren but this one stuck out to her). When that grandchild dropped out of college in her first year, she received the money anyway and used it on a new car which she totalled within six months. My grandmother wonders why no one wants to visit her now in her dying days. Her favoritism has spoken volumes for years.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        moonlake - Thank you for sharing your memories of childhood favorites. Sometimes they can be quite painful, and I appreciate you being so candid.

      • justthemessenger profile image

        James C Moore 

        2 months ago from The Great Midwest

        Favoritism is a normal human reaction. It wasn't really a problem with my family that I grew up in. I believe one of my three brothers was favored by my mother. I also believe he earned his favored status simply by being the one who went along with the program more so than the rest of us. I would say another brother was favored by father based upon him calling him the same nick name that people called him. I think this brother probably reminded him more of him than anyone else. Healthy favorites. However, my grandmothers on both sides took the favorite thing to the hilt. They applied this to their children and grandchildren. Nothing subtle about it. They not only didn't hide it, they openly displayed their favorites.

      • moonlake profile image


        2 months ago from America

        My middle sister was always jealous of me. She would say I got everything she got nothing. I was the oldest my mom was a military wife. When we traveled she depended on me to help with the younger ones. When we got on ships I had to herd the kids together while she took care of paper work, passports and so on.

        When we had a four bedroom place I got my own room. They put my younger sister and my middle sister together in one room, my brothers in one room., my parents in a room and I got the smallest left over room. My sister could never understand that. I didn’t get more stuff my parents couldn’t afford it. I worked for what I got I always had babysitting jobs. My sister was actually the spoiled one she was sickly had a bad heart. They worried about her they never made her do anything. Saturday morning I had to help with housework and the wash before I could go anywhere. My sister was already out playing with her friends.

        I didn’t resent this I also remembered when we almost lost my sister I was ok with helping.

        My sister is gone now she died still thinking she was the black sheep in the family.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Liz - Seems like a good blackmail technique to me, haha. Sorry to hear of the favoritism in your family of origin. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        2 months ago from UK

        Having come from a family where one child was favoured, I have been at pains to be fair with all 4 of my own children. Although I used to joke that whoever behaved the best was my favourite at that time.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Doris - Thanks for the compliment. I find that most families have a favorite, too, although they might believe they're evenhanded. My daughter takes family portraits as a summer job and can spot what kid is the favorite right away. To sell more photos, she knows right off where to focus her energies. Parents treat their kids inequitably.

      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James MizBejabbers 

        2 months ago from Beautiful South

        Most of the families I've been around seem to have favorite children whether they realize it or not. Sometimes children have to be treated differently simply because they are different. The quiet studious one gets one type of treatment, while the boisterous often misbehaving child gets the most discipline. But it is bad when the favoritism is so blatant that it is obvious to everyone, including neighbors and even strangers. Very good article, Flourish.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Heidi - Knowing how to manage kids with different personalities and needs is an art! That Jesus portrait jumped from the fireplace mantel to a wall to facedown under a bed after the divorce with little mention. Small miracles indeed.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Cristina - Sometimes a child reminds a parent strongly of their spouse or partner, and if they have a broken relationship with that person there may be spillover effects. Not healthy or fair but I've seen that happen. You sound like you're trying hard to be a loving daughter no matter what kind of feedback you're getting from her. Your description of your own children was very sweet.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Mary - They sure did a good job if nobody knew or cared!

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Khaili - Although I come from a large extended family (mother is one of six and father is one of eight), I only have one child. Both of my siblings have lots of kids though and they definitely have favorites from what I can see.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        2 months ago from Chicago Area

        A complex issue for sure!

        I couldn't really tell who was the favorite. I know that sounds weird, especially since there were only two kids. We were very different from each other and definitely managed differently by our parents. But I wouldn't call it favoritism, just management.

        Love the "Jesus portrait" story. :-D

      • Stina Caxe profile image

        Cristina Cakes 

        2 months ago from Virginia

        I know that I always was and still am my mother's least favorite. It's funny because I am the only one who calls her every day. Even though I live ten hours away and my brother and sister live in the same town, she talks to me much more than them. I however, can never do anything right in her eyes.

        Being the oldest, I always tried to look out for my brother and sister. Whenever they did anything bad, I took the blame. That might be part of why she thinks I am so wicked. I think it is also because I was the closest to my father who betrayed her, she sees me as having betrayed her as well.

        With my own children, my daughter, the first born, had very severe medical issues and fought hard to stay alive. I never thought I could love another baby as much as her. And then my son was born. You would think he would be more independent because he was not as sick, but I think my daughters sickness gave her strength and independence. My son is very sensitive and needy so I think sometimes it seems like I cater to him more because I know that my daughter will be fine.

        Other times, I look at her and feel so much love because of what a miracle she is. It's hard to imagine that she went through everything she did now because she is so tough, but she will always be my sweet little baby girl, and my son will always be my precious baby boy. I love them both in different ways, but I do not think I love one more than the other....

        I do know this... There is nobody I love more than either of my children.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        2 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        We were 5 girls and all of us thought we were our Father's favourite. We really did not care much who my Mother's favourite was. I suppose they were fair to all of us. I know of kids who suffered from this. Sometimes. some kids are just more loveable.

      • Kaili Bisson profile image

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 months ago from Canada

        This is such a great article Flourish.

        Every family seems to have its own dynamic. I have often read about "middle child syndrome" and have seen that one play out in numerous families. I am an only child :-)

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Linda - With a "yours his, hers, and ours" combination family growing up and being the youngest, I'm willing to bet the others thought you were the favorite! However, with the age gap, perhaps it wasn't as big of an issue compared to if you there had been fewer years between you and your next oldest sibling. I'm the oldest of three, all scrunched into about three years. It's very sweet the way you phrased your love of your daughters.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Tamara - Aww, so sorry to hear that.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        2 months ago from USA

        Bill - I bet you took it for granted to some extent and they thought about it all the time! Yikes!

      • Carb Diva profile image

        Linda Lum 

        2 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Wow, you've really got me thinking about this one. I was the youngest (with a 16-year gap), but it was a blended family with my dad having 2 and my mom 3, and then they married and I happened when both parents were in their 40's. Favored? Perhaps because of my age, but in my memories, my dad never treated any of us differently or "less." He loved my mom's kids as though they were his own flesh and blood.

        In my home we have two daughters, both adults. The younger one lives about 30 minutes from us in another city; she's a home owner, extremely smart and talented and has a very good job. She is a loving, caring person. She and I have the same personallity and we really understand each other. She's my favorite.

        And then there is our older daughter. She is developmentally disabled and lives with us. She loves helping mom and papa, in the garden, with the car, in the kitchen. She is strong and capable, willing to learn. She is compasionate and caring and funny. She is my favorite too.

      • Rhyme Vine Poetry profile image

        Tamara Yancosky 

        2 months ago from Uninhabited Regions

        I know who wasn’t favored... lol.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        2 months ago from Olympia, WA

        I was the golden child of our entire extended family...I took on the competition and vanquished all of the cousins. lol It's funny looking back at it now, and so very clear to see. I doubt my cousins or my sister thought it was so funny back then.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        3 months ago from USA

        Pamela - Those poor middle children seem to have it the hardest. Rarely are they the favorites. Thanks for sharing your own "favorites."

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 months ago from Sunny Florida

        I think I was the favorite with my father, but when my baby brother came along he was my mother's favorite, although I think I was still favored over my sister. My sister (3.5 years younger than me) came to me when she was hurt, and I held her crying more than once.

        I tried very hard to not have a favorite with my 3 boys, as they are each different and have different skills. Their father obviously favored the oldest and youngest over the middle, but we divorced. He was pretty well out of the picture, which I think was a good thing. Life is really tough for some children.

      • FlourishAnyway profile imageAUTHOR


        3 months ago from USA

        Patricia - Thanks for sharing your "favorite" family situation. There are even stories of my great great grandmother (known in the family as a big-boned mean woman with few good things to say) hiding "the good food" from Sunday dinner when she saw my great grandmother coming to visit. We laugh about it but the fact that it's known and still talked about long after both of them are dead is a testament to how much playing favorites can sting.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        3 months ago from sunny Florida

        Well said I have witnessed the favorite child issue as a teacher and in families outside of the school setting My eldest sisters thought I became the fav after another sister died when I was four---and I was the baby. My eldest sister is 18 years older than I am and had already left home when I was born so I never really got to know her till I was in my mid 20s. My sister about whom I have written here on HubPages is 7 years older than I am and despite that age difference we have always been very close The fav issue never was a real problem for us---I do not think I was very sick as a child so of course needed a lot of attention I feel very blessed to be in the family I am in Thank you for sharing this with us Angels are headed your way ps


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