“My oldest tends to be my favorite most often,” one mom of three—let’s call her Samantha—tells HealthyWay. “She is at a stage that is less challenging for me currently, and she is most like me, so I understand her the best.”
Before you jump to conclusions and find yourself wondering what kind of mom favors one child over another, you need to know two things.
First, Samantha is quick to point out that her favorite child changes from time to time.
“Relationships with our children are like relationships with any other person in that we connect to them differently,” she explains. “I love them all equally, but I certainly may like them differently depending on the day.”
The second thing you need to know is that Samantha isn’t all that different from other parents. The only thing that truly sets her apart is that she is honest about favoring one child over the other, while many parents deny this to be true. The truth is, research actually shows that favoring a child isn’t all that uncommon. And, like Samantha, most parents will favor their oldest child. Birth order does influence how parents feel about their children, according to a study published in The Journal of Family Psychology.
In the study, which was published in 2005, 384 families were surveyed. Each of these families had a pair of children that were no more than four years apart in age. And although the parents did admit to having a favorite child, they didn’t admit to which child it was. Instead, the children themselves were surveyed on how they perceived preferential treatment from their parents and how it impacted their self-esteem.
And the Winner Is…
In the study, both oldest and youngest child argued that their sibling received preferential treatment. Of course, if any of us think back to our own childhood, we might say that our parents liked our sibling better, too. It goes to show that, no matter the birth order, children are going to believe they are being slighted by their parent.
This wasn’t the only thing we discovered from their survey results. Much more telling were the revelations about how preferential treatment influenced feelings of self-worth. Specifically, it was the oldest child who was impacted the least by preferential treatment. Meanwhile, younger kids were much more likely to have their self-esteem suffer, suggesting that the parents did, in fact, favor the older child.
Additionally, in a second visit with these families, conflicts and problems were presented to the family. In recording the family as they attempted to resolving these conflicts, researchers noted that preferential treatment seemed to fall on the oldest child most often.
What about families that don’t fit in the neat mold of having two children? Well, middle children are the least likely to be favored, according to The New York Times.
Why Parents Play Favorites
As explained above, parents are definitely most likely to favor their older children. Of course, there are always exceptions to rules, and birth order isn’t the only factor that influences how parents feel about their children. The truth is, behavior does impact how parents treat their kids.
It’s hard not to prefer the kids who make parenting easier, according to Kryss Shane, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in adolescent and child counseling. She explains further that if parents are busy, the child who is more likely to sit quietly during work calls or stressful times may gain a spot of favoritism as well.
For one mom of two, birth order doesn’t seem to matter at all. She admits to struggling with feelings of preference towards her youngest child on a regular basis.
“I have a favorite child,” she admits. “It’s the one who thinks linearly, isn’t lost in his head, and is affectionate. It’s easy to spend time with him and I understand him.”
She continues on to explain that her other child, her oldest, is much different. She doesn’t understand the way she thinks, often feels overwhelmed and unnerved by her chatty and hyperactive nature, and frustrated by her misbehavior.
In other cases, similarities that exist between parent and child my explain why a parent may show preference. Bonding over music or hobbies may provide a stronger connection, says Shane. And if the child is exceptional in a way that is prioritized by the parent, such as getting good grades or performing well in sports, parents may favor kids because of the pride they feel for that child or the bragging rights they provide.
Interestingly enough, although many parents may say differently, the child who receives the status of favorite child probably remains the same, no matter how their behavior or performance changes, according Oksana Hagerty, PhD, an educational and developmental psychologist who serves as a learning specialist at Beacon College.
“No matter what has happened, most of the time, the status of the kid as a favorite or a non-favorite remains the same throughout the life of the kids or the parent,” she says.
When Favoritism is Harmless
Not all feelings of favoritism are reason for concern, according to Shane. In fact, she believes these preferences are fairly typical, and research backs that up. The truth is, 70 percent of mothers report feelings of preference towards one child, and 74 percent of fathers say the same.
“It’s generally assumed that having a favorite child is wrong because it puts children against each other and means that at least one child has to then be the least favorite child,” Hagerty says. “However, this is super common, it’s something that can change frequently, and it is no reason for parents to feel guilty.”
Additionally, feelings are simply feelings. And for mothers like Samantha, keeping favoritism harmless might be as simple as working hard to behave fairly towards your children, no matter how you feel.
“It doesn’t affect the family dynamic,” says Samantha. “Time and time again, I have made it explicitly clear that I love each of them with a love so deep they could never understand it, and no matter what they do I would never stop loving them.”
When Favoritism is Harmful
That being said, there is no question that favoritism can be harmful to the family dynamic. According to Hagerty, it is pretty typical for favoritism to affect sibling relationships.
“Very rarely does the child who is not a favorite perceive this situation as normal,” she says. “Most of the time, unfortunately, playing favorites causes rivalry between children and really affects their relationship in the future.”
According to Shane, self-aware parents should be able to see when their affection towards their children becomes a problem. Favoritism is harmful if it leads you to have more relaxed rules for one child or if you spend far more time with a specific child.
Additionally, parents should be open to criticism from friends, co-parents, and even their children on this topic. In some cases, children will speak up, pointing out that their parents are showing preference toward one kid time and time again. This is a pretty good indication that there is a problem with the family dynamic.
Here’s What to Do if Favoritism is Harming the Family Dynamic
We all make mistakes, and showing our feelings of preference toward one child is a one that many parents may find themselves making. So what should be done in this situation? Shane recommends attacking the problem head on.
“If a parent recognizes they’ve slighted another child or other children, it may be time to reexamine rules in the home,” she says. “To try to refrain from having one long-term favorite, parents can work to engage with each child one-on-one so each gets alone time with their parent. Parents can also work to rotate activities during family time so every child gets to do their favorite thing periodically.”
Shane also recommends professional guidance, like counseling, if favoritism is becoming a problem in your home. A counselor can help parents examine the dynamics of the home, making certain they’re not responsible for creating a conflict and tension between siblings. Additionally, a therapist can help determine if favoritism is damaging the self-esteem of non-favorite children in the home and offer direction on what should be done next.
In the case that behavior motivates preferential treatment, it’s a good idea to address that specific aspect of the relationship. Shane suggests beginning by planning some one-on-one time with that child doing something they prefer and listening to whatever they have to say.
“You may find that they have a lot to say but don’t compete with siblings,” she says. “Or that something is going on that may be causing their tricky behaviors at home. If any one child is becoming increasingly difficult or creating problems at school and at home, it may be time to consider seeking professional help and guidance.”