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When Parents Play Favorites

"After three sons, I desperately wanted a girl. As soon as my daughter was born, I felt an instant connection with her — and have preferred her among my four children over the years," confesses Janice* of Cincinnati. "I identify with her issues, and we share so many interests — from shopping to the ballet — that my sons couldn't care less about. Do I play favorites? Yeah. And do I feel horrid about it? Of course I do."

Chances are, if you have more than one child, you can relate. Favoritism happens. With each new child and at each new parenthood stage, family dynamics change. Emotional alliances form and shift and then shuffle again. Much as we try to be fair, some days we may silently admit to ourselves that the painful inner answer to the question "Who do you love more — Jamie or me?" is "Jamie."

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.

*Name has been changed.

Sue Woodman is a journalist specializing in health, parenting, and social issues, and a mother of two in New York City.

Who is the Parent's Pet?

Usually, the most favored child in a family is its "star." For Sharon, a mom of two in Denver, her gifted daughter, Jenny, can do no wrong: The 11-year-old honor roll student is captain of her middle-school swim team and an accomplished artist, having had her watercolors displayed in the window of the local library. Sharon admits, "It's hard not to glow in Jenny's presence." When our kids do well, we take it as evidence that we've been wonderful parents, says Adele Faber, co-author with Elaine Mazlish of Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Too (Avon). "The downside," adds Sharon, "is that my 13-year-old son, George, who's just an average kid, too often seems to stand in his sister's shadow as I'm applauding her, which I feel terrible about. But I don't think that means I should praise Jenny any less."

Sometimes the favored one is a kid whose personality just clicks more with a parent's. A child may be particularly loving, easygoing, or naturally charming — and you can't resist. And like Janice, some parents have strong preferences for one gender over another — or warm to the child who most closely resembles them. Eve, a mother of three in Portland, Oregon, explains the extra tenderness she feels for her 8-year-old daughter, Ann: "She's like me — no-nonsense and direct — but she's better than me, so tuned in to others' feelings, and I want to bask in that. She's almost always the first one I ask, 'How was your day?'"

Other parents favor the child who is just their opposite, because the one who's more like them is a reminder of their own shortcomings. John, a dad of two in Houston, favors his eager-to-please 7-year-old daughter over his 8-year-old son. "My boy and I are so similar. He procrastinates and squirms out of boring projects, the way I always have. My daughter, though, always does just what she's supposed to, and I tend to reward that behavior. I like to pick her up from a playdate and, instead of going straight home, stop at the ice cream or toy shop."

Interestingly, some moms and dads favor kids who are their "problem child" because they think these kids need them more. "My daughter, Cassie, was a terror from birth to about age eight," says Hilary of Baltimore. "Though I adore my easygoing son, Henry, I ended up spending most of my time with Cassie — comforting her through her anger and dark moods, showering her with attention, and bribing her with treats, stickers, and movie jaunts just so she'd behave. In Henry's eyes, Cassie was the favored child. Henry got short-shrifted by having a difficult sister."

What Special Attention Does to Kids

Of course, these parents try to conceal their favoritism, but kids pick up on it in subtle ways, and this packs a wallop. The less favored child can carry around feelings of confusion — "What am I doing wrong?" — and resentment — "Why don't I get all those hugs and rewards?" — not to mention anger and low self-esteem.

Eleven-year-old Sherie of Tampa, Florida, is a middle child whose mom, Sandra, insists that she treats all three of her children equally. Not according to Sherie: "My older sister is Mom's best friend. My younger brother is her baby. And I'm kind of ignored in the middle." Sherie admits to keeping a tally of her mom's signs of affection. She says her mother has attended more of her sister's and brother's sports events than she has hers.

Faber notes the flip side: Many favored children would happily forgo their title. "They hate being regarded as special, because then they have to live up to it," she explains. "Some have also complained that their siblings hate them for it. That's a big, sad price to pay."

How Preferring One Child Hurts You

When favoritism happens, it's as hard on the parent as it is on the kid. You can't control the temperament of your children, and it's likely one kid will pull on you more, especially at certain points. Parents who are aware of their preferences say they feel ashamed, deficient, and guilty.

But Nancy Samalin, who runs Parent Guidance Workshops in New York City, says they needn't be so hard on themselves. "It's normal to feel this way," she says. "Don't beat yourself up about having these feelings as long as you keep mum. And if you feel guilty about neglecting one child, that's a sign that you need to change your behavior. Use your guilt productively." (We tell how in "Evening the Score.")

Incidentally, playing favorites isn't always a permanent state. "The reassuring thing about favoritism is that it doesn't stay the same," says Samalin. "It shifts. Favorites aren't necessarily favorites for life."

Evening the Score

Some child-rearing experts say that the primitive contest among siblings is no more than a natural law of the human jungle. As long as parental favoritism isn't voiced or acted on too strongly, they believe, it doesn't do any damage. Indeed, some parents hold the same opinion. As one Detroit dad puts it, "By staking out claim to their parents' attention, kids learn coping skills and the ways of the world, and I don't think that's so bad."

Still, most parents try to compensate. Spending time together, experts agree, is the best way to get closer to the kid who's out of favor. "All kids love to feel you're concentrating just on them, that this is a special time that you value as much as they do," Faber says.

For example, Erica of New York City has twin sons, 9-year-old Max and Nick. Rambunctious Max has always demanded more of his mother's attention. "He gets into fights and requires more parent-teacher conferences because of his active, competitive nature," says Erica. "We simply spend more time and energy focused on Max. And we reward his good behavior with gifts. Nick is just sort of there, in the background. Sometimes, I feel that Nick behaves so well because he knows this family can't afford more stormy behavior."

Erica has recently tried to make it up to Nick by giving him more attention. She now divides things equally between her boys: the hours she's alone with each, the sports matches she attends, the homework she helps with. "I'm so careful to dole out the same number of gifts of the same value," she says. "I'm conscious of how the boys are eyeing my behavior." What also works: finding activities, from art to sports, that you can all do together, so kids get used to sharing your attention.

How to handle those times when the talented or charming child is lapping up your attention? Celebrate your star, but don't go overboard. "Moms have said to me, 'Why should I deprive my child of the attention she deserves?'" says Anthony E. Wolf, author of The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids Without Threats or Punishment (Farrar Straus & Giroux). But Wolf advocates that tempering praise for a child can benefit her as well as her siblings. Tell her you're proud, but focusing "too much attention on her achievements could make her feel that she needs to accomplish more to get love," Wolf explains.

Faber recommends that if a child asks, "Who do you love most?" parents don't respond, "I love you all equally." Instead, answer: "You are my only Katie. In the whole world, no one has your thoughts, your feelings, your way of doing things. I am so lucky you were born to me." To be loved for who you are is to be loved as much as anyone can be, Faber says.