Before beginning, let’s just quickly move past the pretense that “I have no favorite child…what are you talking about?”
Depending on the day, the time of day, and who’s being the most cooperative, we all have a secret favorite. In the rigmarole of parenting, it’s impossible not to choose favorites. But can such favoritism be a dangerous thing?
I have four children who keep my mental health on its toes. With the stages they are all going through right now, I pick a different favorite child every day. Sometimes my 8-year-old is as sassy as a hip-hop diva, bossing everyone around and sticking her nose up at every suggestion I make. But there are moments she opens up and says, “Mom, let’s talk about something.” In those times, she is my favorite.
Up until this year when he caught a teasing virus that makes him torture his siblings, my six-year-old was my favorite. He was the sweetest little toddler, never going through the terrible two stage. He would give up his toys to another and be quick to do anything I’d ask. I was beginning to think my favoritism for him was beaming a little too brightly.
Good thing he just got a demotion.
Right now, when my snuggly 3-year-old tells me in her little birdlike voice that I’m the most beautiful mommy in the world, how can she not be my favorite? But she’s also the worst sleeper in the house so that occasionally knocks her down a few rungs on the favorite ladder.
And my 2-year-old. Well, I’ve spoken about him before here and here. It’s no secret that he’s been a rough ride. I never thought I would be able to call him my favorite until just recently. When he’s screaming like a feral baboon or kicking through my piles of neatly folded laundry just to spite me, he’s my least favorite. But when he uttered the words for the very first time—“I lub you mommy”—my heart melted into a puddle on the floor.
Loving Them vs. Liking Them
Like I said, we all have a favorite child depending on the phase in life they are in. Your favorite child might be…
- the one who sleeps the best.
- the child who obeys willingly.
- your ray of sunshine.
- the peacemaker of the family.
- the child who makes you laugh.
- your sweet snuggler.
- the independent one who knows when to leave you alone.
I’ve had this conversation with my sisters before about the odd ability to love your children all the time, but not like them some of the time. To non-parents, this may sound harsh at best and atrocious at worst, but it’s true.
Our love for our children is unconditional, but sometimes their tricky behaviors make kids hard to like.
Lasting Effects of Favoritism
In an article found in the New York Times, Dr. Barbara Howard, a prominent developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is quoted as saying,
It is impossible not to have favorites, and we know that the perception of favoritism is one of the biggest factors in sibling rivalry.
Often the child is trying to get the attention of the parent who is rejecting them. So if you see a kid coming at a parent, being aggressive or being clingy or needy or overly attention-seeking, often the parent doesn’t like that kid much, or [so] the kid perceives it.”
Favoritism and its effects are a frustrating cycle. We favor the kid who is being the sweetest, or giving us the least amount of grief. When other siblings see that favoritism, they seek our attention by acting out or becoming clingy, thus we “like” them less and it becomes one big frustrating hamster wheel.
A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family titled Mother’s Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms Among Adult Children found that adolescents and even young adults who sensed their mother regularly favored or rejected one child over another were more prone to depression.
So What Can We Do?
If you look back over your own childhood, perhaps you can pinpoint the “favorite” child in your family. I feel my parents did a pretty stand-up job of loving us all equally. But as the oldest child, I often felt the weight of high expectations and lashed out against them. As a teenager, I was the steel to my parents’ flint and sparks ignited. I was not the favorite during my teenage years. My calm, peace-maker sister, however, was much easier to love during that time. I perceived my parents’ pleasure at her sunny disposition and their frustration at my sour one as her being the favorite.
You never know what kids silently perceive.
So what can we do besides choose a new favorite every day? We can do our best. We can look them each in the eye and tell them we love them, and that nothing in the world will ever change that. And we can learn their quirks and look past their irritations. Many times, children are silent about their thoughts on this matter, so talk to them. Have an open conversation and coax their worries to the surface. Make sure they know that they are loved and will always be loved, no matter what.
And if you do have a favorite, let’s hope you have a really great poker face.
*All stock images courtesy of Unsplash.