“I love you, but it’s very important that I like you.”
That was one of my mom’s A-list phrases growing up. She often said it during moments of calm, not when she was wielding one of her bristly hairbrushes as a potential (but never employed) enforcer of choice. She came in 11th in the 1961 Miss America pageant, so the woman is never far from a grooming tool. My brother Aaron and I were lucky Maybelline lipstick wasn’t the size of a Louisville slugger.
But what happens when you like one kid more than another? That’s the crux of Time’s latest cover story, “Why Mom Liked You Best: The Science of Favoritism.” It’s a terrific piece by Jeffrey Kluger. The crux of the story: a major study out of the University of California at Davis that monitored 384 pairs of siblings and their parents over three years. It found that 70 percent of dads exhibited a preference for one child. Our Show & Tell blog did a great job of synopsizing the story.
So why do we pick favorites? Kluger cites the influence of nature and evolution (If a black eagle mother has multiple chicks, she’ll watch as the smallest one is torn to shreds by its sibling. “The function of the second chick is insurance,” one expert says. “If the first chick is healthy, the policy is cancelled.”) He also covers age (for some, younger siblings are favorites because they’re smaller and need more protection; for others, older siblings are preferred because they are stronger, i.e. more capable of fostering the family genes).
But here’s the thing: science is, well, science. It’s data and graphs and statistical anomalies and control groups and studies with tens or thousands or tens of thousands of subjects. What’s missing? People. Individuals. Narcissistic humans who care little about data or control groups or black eagles when it comes to handling their offspring. (“Hmm. My son is acting really spoiled. What would the other 383 sets of parents do in my situation?”) So how does a dad like me pick his fave? He picks the one that makes him feel the most needed.
My wife Brandy has two younger brothers: Steve and James. For Brandy and James, life came a little bit easier. They were book smart: summer reading, final exams and SATs came and went without much agita. Their talents beyond the classroom? No real struggle there. (Brandy the national champion dancer; James the basketball player, ranked as one of Florida’s best prospects in middle school.) Steve didn’t have these luxuries. Learning disabilities made school miserable; catastrophic knee injuries plagued his sports career. While he was in high school and college, Steve needed a lot of help. His mom proofed and double-proofed term papers. Facilitated tutoring. Offered mental and emotional support. Today, he’s arguably the best and brightest high school basketball coach in the state. Last night, I asked Brandy who her mom’s favorite is. “Stevie,” she said. No pause.
Who was the favorite in my house growing up? I would probably say me. But it’s not because I was more gifted or better behaved. It’s that I needed more. Cooler: Aaron. Savvier: Aaron. More natural with girls: Aaron. Better fashion sense: Aaron. More independent: Aaron. He handled the riding lawnmower and dug holes for fence posts to earn extra money. When he was 13. Cut to me in front of the TV, snorting Cheeto dust and watching Thundercats. He asked for little, and said less. He pushed dinner around his plate until he could be excused, at which time he retired to his room to order himself a small Domino’s (paid for with the landscaping loot), and watch videotapes of the most recent Republican National Convention. Again, when he was 13.
Me? I needed tutoring, advice, direction, and constant, relentless and oftentimes meaningless conversation. (I remember one chat with my dad about wall-to-wall carpeting that lasted the entire 30-minute ride to school.) In essence, I loitered in their consciousness, a protester chained to their cerebellums. I needed more from them, and in turn, they felt more needed by me.
Parents, like all humans, are self-centered. We feel fulfilled when our son says that B makes a ba-ba-ba sound, because we held up the flashcards. We bask in the silvery glow of our daughter’s tennis trophy, because we drove her to every single lesson. Moms and dads need to be needed. It’s no surprise that the divorce rate jumps 16 percent when parents become empty nesters. Merriam-Webster defines “father” as “a man who has continuous care of a child.” So after the ABCs are mastered and the tennis lessons are over, who are we?
As for my boys, I have a favorite. It’s Jackson. He’s affectionate and kind. I help him assemble his Lego Star Wars sets. But then again, Tanner is unbelievably sweet. I love it when he asks me to carry him downstairs for breakfast. Man, it’s actually hard to pick. But let’s be real here: what’s most important is that I’m their favorite.