I often read a book to my children — ages 7, 4 and 10 months —that’s called “You’re All My Favorites.” In it, three baby bear siblings question how their parents could possibly love them all the same. Spoiler alert: The mama and papa bears assure their cubs that they can and do adore them equally! I tell my kids they’re all my favorites, too. But it isn’t true.
On any given day, I like one more than the others. This week’s frontrunner: The baby, because she hasn’t hit anyone at the bus stop and she doesn’t tell me she’s brushing her teeth when she’s really just running the water and making faces at herself in the mirror. When I asked my mom-of-multiple-kids friends whether they have a favorite, they all responded with some version of, “Depends on the day.” So this type of favoritism appears to be normal. But is it okay?
You may have read about the recent Brigham Young University study that found if a child feels like he or she was less-favored, said child is twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. The study got a lot of media attention, but still, what didn’t make most of the headlines was the fact that the study looked at “disengaged” families who already had major lack-of-love issues.
“I don’t think we can conclude that any favoritism is going to cause your child to be a drug addict,” Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid,” tells Yahoo Parenting. Phew! That said, she added, “There is a lot of research showing that it is damaging when children feel there is a favorite and it’s not them.” Damn. Here, what you need to know about playing favorites:
It’s all about perception.
You may say you don’t have a favorite and that may be the truth, but it doesn’t matter. “Reality is in the eye of the beholder,” Markham says, “and the research shows that favoritism is about perception.” Does your child feel like you give another kid more attention? Does she think the others get more rewards? More love? That’s where you need to be mindful. “The child will act out because she doesn’t know what to do with these feelings,” Markham adds.
Not everything needs to be Even-Steven.
If your son is in the school play this week, he will naturally be getting more attention than his siblings. But next week his sister will have a big soccer game and she’ll be the star. “That’s not the kind of pervasive favoritism you need to watch out for,” notes Markham. “For there to be real damage, the perceived favoritism needs to be on an ongoing, consistent basis.”
Beware of having a least favorite.
For many it’s favoritism by default—the “easy” child is perceived as being the favorite while the more difficult kid feels attacked. This is certainly the case in my house where my 4-year-old has made it her life’s work to test me whenever possible (see running the water instead of brushing teeth, above). “If a child feels like mom or dad is more critical of them, or less affectionate to them, they will be jealous of the interactions they see the parent having with the sibling,” says Markham. Ding ding ding! My daughter occasionally declares, “You like Alex better than me!” I don’t, of course, and I am equal opportunity with my affection, but I can’t help getting extra frustrated with her because, well, she’s extra frustrating. Guess I need to work on that.
If you do have a favorite (even just for a day), hide it.
“If you consistently feel like there is one child you really relate to — one who shines, one you’re really proud of — and you don’t feel that way about the others, eventually what you think will come out of your mouth, or in your actions,” warns Markham. Feeling annoyed by a particular kid is normal, and feeling you have a favorite is, too. But, she says, “You’re the grown-up, and every child deserves unconditional love. So what are you going to do with those feelings?”
Bottom line: Each child should feel like the favorite…
…but no child should actually be your favorite. Work on your individual relationship with all your children, focusing on what makes them unique — and reminding yourself of those qualities when the going gets tough. “Every child has to feel like they could not be loved better — indeed, that they are loved best,” says Markham. “But that does not mean that their sibling perceives that child as the favorite, even for a moment.”