PLAYING FAVORITES Can you prefer one child over another — and still be a good parent?


It’s an age-old sibling cry: “You’re the favorite!” “No you’re the favorite!” And inevitably the parent steps in: “Stop! We don’t have a favorite.”

But haven’t you ever found yourself secretly enjoying one child more than another? Don’t you occasionally wish for less time with the difficult child and more with the sweeter one?

If you’re like most parents, you’ll say yes. Now, does that admission make you a bad parent? Thankfully, the answer is no. And here’s why.

“It’s perfectly natural for good parents to have favorite children,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy B. Irwin. “Parents can love each of their children equally, while favoring one over the others.”

Dr. Jo Anne White runs a counseling practice and has seen many parents who feel guilty about their feelings. “One of my clients felt that she was a terrible mother because she favored her daughter over her son,” says Dr. White. “But once she understood the reasons why, she felt better.”

Parents are people

C.T. O’Donnell II, president and CEO of KidsPeace, a charity helping families overcome the crises of growing up, agrees. “Parents are people,” says O’Donnell. “People respond differently to behaviors, aptitudes and physical characteristics. It’s human to be more engaged with those who share your similarities and interests.”

Similarities and interests combine to determine how well a parent and child will get along, how much time they will spend together and how their bond will develop. Compatible interests, for example, make it easy for a parent and child to participate in activities together. A mother with a passion for bargain hunting will likely bring along the child who prefers garage sales to biking trails. Similarly, a father who reserves Sunday for tinkering in the garage will be more prone to invite his overalls-clad youngster rather than his tutu-sporting sweetheart to join him.

Stages in life play a role in determining a child and parent’s companionship. Tammy, 48, finds that her connection is the strongest with the younger of her two daughters, mostly because that daughter recently became a mother herself. “We get to share being a mom,” she says. “That’s probably when we have the most fun together — when the baby’s around.”

Personality types are important in all relationships, and the child-parent dynamic is no different. Big Apple mom Candace*, 55, says her younger daughter, Helen*, now 18, is easy to live with. “She hates making waves,” Candace says. “She’s happy and keen to please.”

In contrast, Candace continues, from the time her older daughter Terri*, now 21, hit school age, she became willful and opinionated. “She wanted to be independent, and in fact she was independent,” Candace recalls. “She never accepted our help with school work. Sometimes we felt alienated from her.”

Even now, Candace describes Terri as “bossy”, and says a visit from her can be “wonderful for the first 10 minutes, and then I feel like I have to control myself the rest of the time. Sometimes when she leaves, it’s kind of a relief.”

Yet none of these feelings has interfered with Candace’s role as parent. “Bringing up kids and sending them into the world is an important job,” she says. “I have always worked to keep my emotional reactions from interfering. So when I have these feelings towards one or the other, I remind myself that the bottom line is that it is my job to turn them into functioning adults.”

Variations on Candace’s family dynamic are common. Kathey, a 51-year-old mother of two girls, says her older daughter’s self-confidence makes her easier to interact with. “My youngest requires a lot of encouragement and needs to be talked through the tough times,” she says.

“Parents tend to enjoy one aspect of a child over another, not necessarily the entire child,” says Thomas Haller, a family therapist and the author of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with a Purpose.

Like looking in a mirror

Parents may find themselves gravitating toward a child who resembles someone they love — be that a relative, a friend or even themselves. Nevertheless, most experts agree that parents are often hardest on the children who are most like them.

“Sometimes parents will see a trait they dislike about themselves in their child and will project negative feelings based on those traits,” says Dr. Gail Gross, a family and child development expert.

Similarly, a child who reminds his parent of a foe, perhaps an ex-spouse, can feel the brunt of the parent’s pent-up frustration with the person they take after. “If a husband and wife are going through a bitter divorce, a child who strongly resembles one spouse can, through no fault of his own, provoke hostility,” says O’Donnell.

Favoritism is fluid

While her kids have unique personalities, it’s the situations rather than characteristics that bring out momentary favoritism in 31-year-old Amy. “I can favor either one of my children,” she says. “It depends on the circumstances.”

Amy’s kids are 2 years and 15 months. “While Erin is potty training and has had the fourth accident that day, or she’s just being disobedient, I get frustrated and am thankful that Nathan is at the ‘I love my mommy’ stage,” she says. “On the other hand, when Nathan is teething or at a particularly clingy phase, I’m thankful that Erin is more independent.”

Brooklyn mom Carol Leven has the same perspective. “I have two sons, so naturally I compare them,” she says, “and there are many times that one seems to have a lot more on the ball than the other. But I also have a daughter, and she’s special and unique because she’s the girl.

“I can go for months preferring one of my children because they’re in a place that clicks with me,” she continues. “Then it will change. They may start going through something that makes me crazy and we do nothing but butt heads. So long as it keeps shifting, it probably all evens out.”

Time changes everything

If the discovery that you have a favorite child throws you for a loop, relax. Your feelings may lessen, or even change entirely, with time.

While Kathey admits to enjoying spending time with her older daughter more, she knows it’s likely due to the fact that the younger girl is four years behind her sister. “My oldest is more reserved; she doesn’t feel the need to be entertaining like the younger one,” says Kathey. “The older one is more self-confident, but that might come with maturity for the youngest.”

There are times Carol Leven says she favors Eli because he’s the oldest. “I can talk to him about things I can’t discuss with the twins,” she explains.

Dr. Virginia Shiller, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activities for Positive Parenting, says parents should look at their feelings with an eye to the future. “A shy child who shines at far fewer activities than her older sister may remain closer to her parents in their middle or later years.”

Filling a void

Often a parent may be drawn to a child because he or she brings out good qualities in the parent. Take Beth, a 49-year-old mother of one girl and two boys. “My boys’ relaxed attitude is sometimes a relief,” says Beth. “But it’s the drive and determination of my daughter that keeps me on my toes and encourages me to better myself.”

It’s a guy thing

Does gender play a role in whether or not a parent favors one child over another?

“Mothers and sons bond and girls tend to bond with their fathers,” says Dr. Gross. “Vulnerability is a key factor, as dads are more vulnerable to their daughters and mothers to their sons.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that mothers and sons are able to extend that bond to their day-to-day lives. After all, mothers and daughters are both women, so they may share interests and perspectives in a way that the men in the family won’t “get”.

“Of course, my daughter is the most fun to shop and share girl talk with,” says Beth, who adds that it’s her boys whom she can really lean on in times of crises.

It takes all kinds

Feeling a stronger bond with one child is not the sole domain of parents with both boys and girls, however. Tammy has night-and-day relationships with her two girls.

“I’m closer to my younger daughter,” says Tammy, who attributes this closeness to the dynamics of her relationships with the girls. “I have two different roles with my girls: Mother to one and Friend to the other,” says Tammy. “As a mother, I know how to react, but being a friend to your daughter is stressful.”

Tammy adds that the difference in the relationships with her girls started at a very young age – in fact, from the day the children arrived at their new home. “Our youngest daughter was still a baby when the girls were adopted, so she wanted to be held and loved. Our oldest, on the other hand, fought affection from the very first day. I was too intense for her.”

“I feel very guilty that I’m closer to our youngest,” admits Tammy.

A waste of emotional energy

Mothers like Tammy need to know that simply having these feelings does not a Mommy Dearest make.

“If a parent is treating each of their children with the same concern and dignity, but is feeling guilty in quiet moments of self-reflection because they feel they favor one child over another, that is a waste of emotional energy,” says Rachel Egan, a family and child development expert.

From the parents’ point of view, Carol believes, “They’re people and we’re people. It’s only natural, and it doesn’t have to be insidious.”

Blame it on mom

Blaming our parents for the way we turned out is a tried and true coping method. And it appears even favoritism can be rooted in the family tree.

Dr. White believes parents who develop strong bonds with one child over another may be influenced by their own childhood. Parents whose own parents had a ‘favorite’ child may find themselves displaying favoritism as adults, Dr. White says.

Dr. Gross agrees. “If a mother’s mother did not bond well with her, she’ll have a hard time bonding with her own daughter,” she says.

However, a childhood influenced by favoritism can have an opposite, more positive effect. “If your sibling was obviously the favored child and you resented it,” Egan tells parents, “you may consciously avoid favoring any of your own children.”

As a family therapist, Haller advises his clients to come to grips with the fact that we all parent based on a response from the way we were parented. And then, he continues, do something about it. “Our goal is to call upon parents to parent with intentionality and purpose based on the needs of the family.”

Keep it to yourself

While Carol feels that favoritism is bound to occur, she is adamant about one thing: “Absolutely never, as a parent, show your hand.”

Experts agree that favoritism, while normal, is best kept under wraps. “Parents need to be very conscious of how they treat each child,” says Egan. “If a parent displays favoritism, it’s hurtful and potentially destructive.”

Dr. Irwin believes that although we cannot control when we naturally favor one person over another, flaunting favoritism or showing outright bias is undesirable. “Freedom from guilt is to first accept that you do favor one child over another, and know that it doesn’t mean you are a bad person or parent.”

Parents should create ways to get closer to the less-favored child, adds Dr. Irwin. “Step into her world. You can even talk about it. Say, ‘Susie, I don’t have a clue what makes you tick, but I’d love to understand it.’ You may learn more about yourself from a child you have nothing in common with than from the one you favor.”

“There is a dark side to favoritism that many people don’t know about,” says O’Donnell of KidsPeace. “Kids do sometimes suffer because of it.”

Many parents may not realize that they actually have different feelings for their children because admitting it is difficult. Even more upsetting can be the discovery that the parent is acting on these feelings. However, O’Donnell and others agree that shining the light on these situations, while unsettling, can be a good thing.

While guilt is unproductive, Egan believes it’s necessary if a parent finds that he or she is displaying favoritism. “Guilt may be the change agent that’s needed,” says Egan.

What’s a parent to do?

The first thing O’Donnell recommends is for parents to understand they are not necessarily favoring one child over another because of who the child is, but rather that “you are favoring a child’s activities or interests, based on your own likes and dislikes.”

Second, O’Donnell tells parents, “Remember that the less-favored child loves you and looks to you as the most important person on earth for validation, attention, love and self-esteem.”

And finally, says O’Donnell, “Don’t feel guilty. Instead learn to celebrate the differences and similarities that make up the most important and rewarding job on the planet.”