Do we play favourites with our kids?

Do we play favourites with our kids?
Children and their parents play on Mauntlavina beach in Colombo during sunset November 15, 2008.
PHOTO: Reuters

The season is over. It felt like a month of Sundays for a while, with all that time off.

Now our tree is down and back in storage. It was once all lit up and beautiful, but lately it was alone pretty much. Neglected. Tired. No longer the centre of attention. Instead of "I'll be Home for Christmas," it seemed to hum "The Party's Over."

My old friend remarked: "I can relate. I was once a beautiful tree." Sad.

Among the gifts

When you have a big family, there's always a mountain of gifts under the tree. Toys and trinkets, gadgets and games all wrapped with tinsel and ribbons. When we opened them on the 25th, it felt like a free-for-all. The noise and excitement brought back bittersweet memories.

One present got the most attention: a black T-shirt with "Mom's Favorite" emblazoned on the front. I don't know who gave it or to whom it was given. But my grandchildren took lots of photos, and as if that was not funny enough, so did their parents.

There were cheers and jeers from the peanut gallery. It was all in good fun. But there seemed to be an edge in the laughter. Was it mine?

The humour, after all, was a bit at my expense. I laughed along like a good sport. But I felt a sudden twinge in my heart. Do my children really believe I prefer one out of the six? Have they grown up believing there is indeed a favoured one?

I know they are old enough to know better, but do they? They have children of their own, for goodness' sake!

Do we play favorites?

In my family, I have been constantly "teased" that I do. In my heart of hearts I know I love them all equally. They say that parents with more than one child all have the same answer. I asked around and it's true, although one was more candid, saying, "Sometimes I feel like knocking my son down. He is full of himself. But I don't feel that way about my daughter. Does that mean I play favorites?"

No measure

Whenever I have tried to measure the love I feel for my children, I have discovered this "awesome immenseness" that has grown, unbidden, inside me with the birth of each child, and it fills every empty space in my heart.

It is as sweeping as it is specific; as predictable as it is surprising. It is extraordinary as well as an everyday humdrum, "just there" emotion. It has the incredible capacity to go from a comforting rock-a-bye-baby tenderness to an insane wild ferocity when provoked.

I suppose that, quite unconsciously, we draw from that "immenseness" in amounts dictated by the need of the moment. How can we then love one more, or less than another?

Am I making sense?

Sue Woodman, a journalist specialising in parenting and social issues, writes about playing favorites: "It's not a comfortable discovery. Favoritism is parenting's dirty little secret: the no-no that gnaws at our aspiration to follow a policy of fairness with our children.

"Sometimes the favoured one is a kid whose personality just clicks more with a parent's.

"Other parents favour the child who is just their opposite, because the one who's more like them is a reminder of their own shortcomings.

"Interestingly, some moms and dads favour kids who are their 'problem child' because they think these kids need them more."

Star billing

The quick and easy reasons offered by some parents are varied. Some become attached to the child who shares their role with them. That is often the eldest. The youngest frequently gets star billing because suddenly there's someone "cute and cuddly" in the family. That one is forever "the baby."

Sometimes there is a "star" child, one who shines brighter than the others, and we tend to overdo our adulation.

How does it feel to be the "less favoured" child? I will tell you. I remember my sister seldom got a "no" from my parents and I rarely got a "yes." I resented it for a time. Soon, I learned I could get my affirmatives from them through her. It worked!

But my parents were fair. Their rules were consistent. Discipline was applied with love and carried the same sanctions or rewards. No special favors.

Parents try very hard to hide that they play favorites. But children quickly pick up on the vibes, however subtle. Less favoured children grow up angry, confused and with low self-esteem. Theirs is not a happy world.

The favourite child often becomes an insufferable spoiled brat with an infirm and self-destructive sense of entitlement. This happens a lot in affluent families.

Favoritism wreaks havoc in the home. It ruins relationships and foments jealousy, resentment and aggressiveness.

Studies show there's a large group of parents who are oblivious. They favour whomsoever they please and feel justified.

Here's the good news. They also found a great and growing number of parents who have raised the bar for parenting and exert every effort to avoid playing favorites, aware of the sad consequences. Bravo!

I suddenly remember the T-shirt and wonder if they have made one for grandparents, too. I find myself in deep thought, searching my soul. Does age give us the right to pick and choose?

I don't think so.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.