Do Parents Pick Favorites?

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By Dr. Michele Borba

“Mom, why do you like Sally more?” “Why can’t you love me like you love Kevin?”

Let’s face it, though we may think we treat and love our kids equally, research shows otherwise. It turns out that most parents do have favorites. In fact, 65[i] percent of moms and 70 percent of dads exhibited a preference for their older child. The danger is that though we try to cover up our feelings, our kids do pick up on which sibling is your favorite. The result can impact not only the child’s self-esteem, but his relationship with both you and his siblings. So what do you do?

Begin with taking a big deep breath. Realize it’s impossible to make things fair all the time. So don’t drive yourself too crazy trying to make every thing equal and equitable.  It’s just not realistic. (Besides, real life isn’t always fair).  The trick is to minimize conditions that break down sibling or peer relationships and cause long-lasting resentment. So here are three steps to help you succeed.

Step 1. Take a parent reality check. Your first step is to take an honest self-appraisal to your feelings about your children. Then tune into your typical daily interactions and how those actions might be perceived by your kids. Do your self-appraisal over the next few days so you can really get a more accurate assessment of your behavior.

Your key test is this: “Do your eyes light up with the same intensity for each of your kids?” And even more important: “Would your kids agree with your verdict? Might you be playing favorites or putting too much pressure on one kid or another?

If you admit you may be playing favorites, then pat yourself on the back for honesty. This is one of those tougher moments in parenting. But don’t stop! Dig deeper. Here are a few more questions to help you get a grip on what’s going on to help you know what to do.

Here are a few things to consider. Do you:

  • Expect more of one child?
  • Give one kid more attention?
  • Take sides?
  • Listen to one kid’s side more or assume one kid is right?
  • Compare your kids in front of each other?
  • Encourage rivalry in academics, sports, or popularity by acknowledging one kid over another? Pay more attention to one child’s hobbies, friends, school, and interests?
  • Distribute chores, rewards, and opportunities fairly?
  • Light up with the same intensity when you see each of your kids?

Step 2. Commit to change. Take time to write a list of what you like most and what you like least about each child. If your list is more slanted to one side or the other, it may signal you have a potential problem. That little exercise is the real first step to change. Once you look over that list, ask yourself if there is just one thing you could do to show less favoritism and more interest toward the other child? Change begins with just one, small step. Write down your intention. Put it in your notebook or on your screen saver. If you have a trusted friend to encourage your change efforts, enlist her support.

Step 3. Try a strategy to reduce rivalry.

Hold your tongue and watch comparisons! Try hard not to express or leak out or even give a clue as to which of your offspring you favor even the tiniest bit more. Beware: Kids do pick up on which sibling is your favorite. Watch out for daily moments that may lead to feelings of “You love him more.” A big complaint of kids is being compared to their older sibling. “Your brother did that when he was three.” “Your sister practiced diligently.” Bite your tongue. Your cardinal rule is “Never compare siblings.”

Nurture unique strengths and differences. Each sibling competing to define who he or she is as individuals often exacerbates sibling rivalry. So acknowledge each child’s special talent that sets them apart from their siblings. For example, if you have a child who excels in art, that’s the sibling who you supply with colored pencils and sketch books and encourage her to take art classes. The trick is to cultivate each child’s natural talent and then find opportunities to show it off so both kids aren’t vying for the same “notoriety” and each child feels “special in his own way.”

Find special alone time with each child. One way to let each child feel treasured is by spending time alone with each parent. Capitalize on those individual moments as they arise: “Your brother is asleep. Let’s just you and I go read books together.” Or make a date with each sibling to have special time just with you then mark it on the calendar. How frequently you meet is based on what’s realistic for your schedule: thirty minutes weekly, ten minutes daily, an hour every other week. Arrange for another adult to watch other siblings or choose a time when they’re gone.  “Together” occasions could be: a movie, a walk, lunching at a favorite restaurant, kite flying, an ice cream outing, or just time alone. Then enjoy each other without siblings around.

Make “first times” special. Every “first” (word, step, recital, etc.) is a momentous occasion with our eldest; but those big “firsts” can get slighted for the other siblings. Be sure to make a big deal over each child’s first loose tooth, soccer trophy, Holiday Pageant, and slumber party so he knows you’re just as elated about his accomplishment as you are with the first born.

[i] Favoritism: J. Kluger, “The New Science of Siblings,” Time, Jul 2, 2006.

Dr. Michele Borba is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, parenting expert and child and adolescent expert. She has written 23 books including, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can follow her on twitter @micheleborba.

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Family, Learn, Modern Parenting, Siblings