Playing favourites

My two sons are currently obsessed with being treated equally, to the point where my eldest recently counted the number of peas on his dinner plate to make sure he wasn’t going to be short-changed. I have dubbed it the Terrible Me-Toos.

This equality process is not only exhausting but it has highlighted for me one of parenting’s dirty little secrets. I have a favourite child.

Yes, that’s right, I prefer one of my children over the other and I am frightened that they are going to be able to tell. Perhaps I will be cursed with this me-tooism for the rest of my days in an effort to pretend I feel the same about the both of them and not scar them both for life.

So, it was comforting to read in the Australian Women’s Weekly online last month that I am not alone. Jeffrey Kluger author of The Sibling Effect told the AWW that any parent that doesn’t have a favourite kid is -- well, lying. And myriad studies support this idea. So, why do I feel so terrible about it? Surely it is next to impossible to like every person in your family equally. In fact I’m pretty sure I slipped a rung or two down the love ladder once my sons came along.

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I can trace some of my guilt to a Stephen King novel called Duma Key where among the blood, viscera and phantasms, King – as he does when he is on form – described a very poignant triangle between a father and his two daughters, where one is clearly the favourite and the other is pained by it. Try as he might, the protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, cannot do anything about it -- it is just a fact. Having only one child when I read it I remember thinking that it was profoundly sad, now having two it seems … almost reasonable.

And which one is my favourite? Given the permanent nature of online writing I’m not sure I can afford the therapy bills if I fess up, but I am a cliché. Most studies have shown that parents gravitate to the child most like them and I am no exception. Yep, it is not bad enough that I play favourites but I am apparently so rampantly narcissistic that I love the idea of hanging around with a mini-me, as if one of me in this lifetime wasn’t enough.

But there is something relaxing, something easy about parenting or guiding someone that you know well. My favourite son and I share a similar temperament, we like a lot of the same things and sometimes I can even help him finish his sentences when he gets tongue tied because I know what he is thinking.

And the preference is subtle, it’s not like I regard one as my future leader and the other as my future kidney donor. I am not living the life of that hilarious 2006 Tropfest winner Carmichael and Shane where the single dad played by Rob Carlton selects one of his twin sons to favour because “there will always be enough love to go around but there may not always be enough bicycles”.

And in that joke may be a kernel of truth, because I am not even sure I love one son more, simply that I get on with one better, that I like one more. My wife has yet to confess a bias, in fact she denies it, but I think it is betrayed now and then and, fortunately for the family dynamic, we did not choose the same kid. Does that make us a well-balanced family unit?

I’m hoping so. I’m running with the idea that we both are smart enough, and subtle enough in our preferences, that it never becomes an issue. Because surely you can’t ever admit to such a thing? If they ever come to suspect the favouritism would it be cathartic for the kids to know which one we preferred, or disastrous?

That’s not a social experiment that I want to be involved with so, for now, I am keeping quiet and hoping that I dispense an equal amount of peas.

 

39 comments

  • My dad was the obvious favourite with his parents when he was growing up with his brother, and he always felt guilty about it. Since have 5 kids of his own he was always on about equality with everything, big and small! That being said, its hard to keep everything equal between 5 very different individuals.
    I sometimes joke that I might be the favourite out of all of us, simply because I was the only planned child, but sometimes it can feel true. I do tend to get on better with both my parents a little more than my brothers and sisters.
    I honestly believe that my parents love everyone of us, but I just think that most the time I'm just easier to deal with.

    Commenter
    1 of 5
    Date and time
    May 17, 2012, 9:32AM
    • I don't have any kids but my sister always claims that I was the favourite growing up. I'm not sure how true this is.

      A more accurate statement from my point of view is that I always did as I was told, whereas she was more likely to rebel.

      Therefore she got yelled at a lot more than I did.

      I assume my parents probably 'preferred' dealing with me because getting me to eat dinner, take a bath or go to sleep was always a relatively easy matter.

      Was I loved more? I don't think so... from my perspective, she always got "more attention".

      I agree with the journalist that its probably true all parents have a 'secret' favourite that they gravitate towards to, just as we gravitate towards certain people in life and avoid others. It is human nature. I know with my two nieces I have a definite favourite, but love them both.

      The most important thing is that all children know they are loved and feel that they are loved.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 17, 2012, 9:53AM
      • As a person who had the misfortune to be raised by parents who blatantly loved my brother more than me or my sister, I am appalled that parents can even admit to favouring one sibling over another. The effects of my mother's preferential treatment to my brother, commencing with his birth and lasting to this day, have been deeply cutting and far-reaching. Words cannot describe the depth of pain and hurt I have felt my entire life at my brother's undeserving fortune as my parent's favourite. Even now it pains me to write about it. I bend over backwards to treat my children equally - and all parents should do the same. Playing favourites is cruel because only one child benefits whilst the rest silently suffer knowing that for whatever reason, they are not good enough.

        Commenter
        Ashley
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 17, 2012, 10:05AM
        • Are you the middle child?

          From what I understand the middle child syndrome is very much a fact.

          Commenter
          SilverTail
          Location
          UpperNorthShore
          Date and time
          May 17, 2012, 12:22PM
        • I have known for some time that my mother favours my sibling. It took me a while but I finally came to terms with the fact that this isn't at all about not being "good enough". In fact, it doesn't reflect on me at all. This is my mother's choice and unfortunately she hasn't been able (or wanted) to hide it. That's not my fault. I don't suffer silently wondering why I'm not good enough. I am good enough for a whole heap of other people in my life. I maintain my relationship with my mother and just go about being me. My mum can take it or leave it. I only have one child (and he's my favourite :) but I've always felt that it would probably be quite difficult not to have a favourite. I'm not appalled that a parent may admit to that. I do agree though for the sake of your child's self esteem if nothing else, try hard not to let your children know which one is the favourite.

          Commenter
          Not the favourite
          Date and time
          May 17, 2012, 2:09PM
        • Ashely, I share your pain. Growing up both my parents favoured my brother over both my younger sister and myself. My sister was a little more fortunate than myself as being the "baby" she didn't suffer as much as I did. Yes I know I'm a typical middle child! I grew up knowing that no matter what I did or how well-behaved I was it was never going to be good enough. Even now as a forty-something adult I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and for some stupid reason I still find myself striving for my parents approval.

          Commenter
          Dotty
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          May 17, 2012, 3:09PM
        • No, I am the eldest child. My middle sibling (a sister) was worse off than me, she was just completely neglected during childhood. All the attention was smothered on my younger brother who to this day, as a 40 year old, is a lazy, uneducated man who is frequently unemployed and has never bothered to go beyond his school education, and cannot cope without the financial support of my parents. My parents provide me with an extensive "debt list" (copied to their executor) of anything and everything they have ever spent on me or for me or on my children or for my children for the past 20 years - including times when the children have contacted them directly and asked them for money for something (ie. money towards Luna Park during school holidays) without my knowledge. They have never done this for my brother. That is just one of the differences in the way they treat me and that is why I have very little to do with them anymore. If I'm not good enough to love as their child, then that's their loss. At least I have learnt from their mistakes and I love my children equally and unconditionally. Frankly any parent who has a favourite and admits to it disgusts me - your inherent bias, no matter how hard you try to disguise it, will completely undermine that child for life, believe me.

          Commenter
          Ashley
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          May 17, 2012, 7:08PM
        • Ashley, I have read your comments carefully, but still can't work out whether you are male or female. Sorry but names like Ashley can be a little ambiguous.

          If you are male, then I can't understand your family dynamic - as you should be by all respects the favourite or at least the most respected.

          But if you are female, then it fits perfectly into the typical three child syndrome. And the resultant "spoilt brat" brother is exactly what is expected.

          What you are experiencing is unfair, but put yourself in a similar position and you may have a compulsion to act the same way - but due to your upbringing you would consciously fight your instinct to favour your child.

          I come from a pigeon-pair family so favouritism was never an issue, and lucky for me my kids are a pigeon-pair, and although pressured for a third child I have made a concerted effort not to break the dynamic.

          I'm no psychologist, yet I have seen many many cases of the dreaded three child syndrome, and the only way it can work is if you have a boy-girl-girl or girl-boy-boy.

          Any other combination is a recipe for discontent. The worst combination is of course the girl-girl-boy.

          Anyone planning to have three kids, think long and hard about that choice, and be prepared to have four kids for the sake of your children's emotional stability.

          Commenter
          SilverTail
          Location
          UpperNorthShore
          Date and time
          May 18, 2012, 9:03AM
        • I've concluded its all about birth order and gender.

          Quote (Time magazine Oct2011):

          "Gender may be especially powerful in determining favouritism in three-child families. As a rule, first- and last-born children have a better shot at being at least one parent's favorite than middle kids do. In all-boy or all-girl families this is especially so, since the middle child stands out neither by birth order nor by sex. That's the case too in families in which the gender sequence is, say, boy-boy-girl or boy-girl-girl, since the middle child is still not unique. Shifting the sequence, however — to boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl — may change everything. In these cases, the uniqueness of gender can trump everything else.

          "If you have a child who is different for any reason, especially being the only girl or only boy, that child is going to get extra attention and investment."

          "The damage that can be done to an unfavored child throughout the long slog of childhood is easy to understand. Harder to fathom are the ways a best-loved son or daughter can suffer, but they're real as well"

          "The biggest risk may be that when you spend your early life enjoying the huzzahs of your parents, you may be unprepared for a larger society in which you're just one young adult out of many, with the special charms Mum and Dad saw in you invisible to everyone else."

          Commenter
          SilverTail
          Location
          UpperNorthShore
          Date and time
          May 18, 2012, 10:38AM
      • You're very brave to be raising this issue Paul as it is possibly the greatest social taboo!
        Yes, while good parents love their children and will do their utmost for all of them, it is perfectly natural that they'll be closer to and get along better with a particular one.
        If we're honest with ourselves we've all observed it or been that way. I've seen it in my own loving family and amongst other friends and relatives. As humans we're all more attracted to what we perceive to be kindred spirits.
        It is simply a fact of family life. No grudges held; no ill feelings on my part.
        More disturbingly however, I found favouritism extremely prevalent in schools whilst growing up. (Those conformist favourites usually ended up as insufferable school prefects sadly!)

        Commenter
        Mencius
        Date and time
        May 17, 2012, 10:43AM

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