I’ll admit it: I have a favorite child—my son. Fortunately, I have two sons, so you (and they) will never know which one I’m talking about. Of course, I don’t actually play favorites (and in fact, my favoritism is pretty fluid, sometimes changing by the hour… or by the tantrum). In any case, the Internet has been abuzz this week about just this topic, thanks to this excerpt in Time magazine from The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger, which addresses parents playing favorites among their kids.
In it, Kluger writes that “it’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter,” despite parents’ best efforts to persuade their kids (and themselves) that they don’t have a favorite. In fact, a 2005 study out of the University of California at Davis found that 65 percent of moms and 70 percent of dads exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. Gulp.
Kluger asserts that such a preference is based on the “parents’ survival needs: the biologically narcissistic act of replicating themselves through succeeding generations. This impels Mom and Dad to tilt in favor of their biggest, healthiest offspring, since those kids will be more reproductively successful and get more of the family’s genes into the next generation… Firstborns are often the family’s favorite, and the reason is one corporations understand well: the rule of sunk costs. The more effort you’ve made developing a product, the more committed you are to seeing it come to fruition.”
Of course, it’s not always the firstborn who is a parent’s favorite—it might be the lastborn, or dare I say it, the middle child—provided that that child stands out for some reason, most likely being the opposite sex of the first- and lastborn. And it’s not always jock dads favoring their athletic sons, Kluger writes, as while Dad might enjoy watching his son on the field, he might find having a conversation with his son downright painful while he is easily wrapped around his daughter’s pinkie finger.
Consistent favoritism doesn’t seem to do anyone any favors, though. According to research out of the University of Denver, Kluger writes, “kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. Some of the subjects would react by exhibiting behavioral problems, leading parents to crack down on them, only widening the gap between the kind of treatment Mom and Dad were meting out to them and the kind being lavished on the favored child.” And favored children may often feel unprepared for the realities of the real world, if they have been made to feel extra-special at home.
Ultimately, should you genuinely feel a consistent preference for one child, you should remain mum, not fully honest. “Not all experts agree on just what the impact of favoritism is, but as a rule, their advice to parents is simple: If you absolutely must have a favorite (and you must), keep it to yourself. Even if your kids see through the ruse, the mere act of trying to maintain it can help them preserve the emotional pretext too—a bit of denial that does little harm.”
So ‘fess up: do you have a favorite child? Did you feel like your parents’ favorite when you were growing up?