Playing Favorites

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If your kids were asked, "Who is your mom's favorite?" what would they say?

While parents might not want to admit it, it's likely that they do have a favorite child.

"One message I have for parents is that they should quit feeling guilty about having a favorite. I like to say that 99 percent of all parents do have a favorite child and the other one percent are lying through their teeth." —Jeffery Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect

In the past few years, the topic of parents having a "favorite" has gotten a lot of attention. From studies that claim biological urges to carry on our line lead to favoritism of the strongest or most successful child, to anecdotes about which child is causing the least trouble at the moment, resulting in temporary "favorite" status, there seems to be clear evidence that it's normal for parents to prefer one child over another.

Some tips to keep your children from feeling out of favor:

  • Spend time with each child, independent of his or her sibling(s). Plan a "date" with each child, periodically.
  • Value each child's activities. While you may prefer watching soccer to attending forensics meets (or vice versa), be sure you give each child's activities equal attention.
  • Avoid comparing siblings. This seems like common sense, but how often do you hear phrases such as, "I never have to ask your sister to hang up her towel," or "Your brother did just fine in that class. Why are you having so much trouble?"
  • Take turns when it comes to family decisions, such as choosing fast-food restaurant, movie, or television show, or who gets the front seat in the car.
  • Seek out each child. While your most vivacious child may dominate the dinner conversation, telling you all about his day, quieter children may feel unwilling to share unless someone specifically asks them.
  • If you have different rules for your children, be sure there is clear justification. Perhaps you allow your middle child to drive your car to and from high school every day, while you required your eldest to take the school bus. It might seem unfair, except that it saves you from having to drive the middle child to her lacrosse practice across town after school every day. Sometimes what's equal isn't what's fair—or logical.
  • Finances can be another hotspot; again, what's fair isn't always what's equal. While one child's cost to participate in a traveling hockey or soccer club team might be far more than the cost of another child's fees for taking part in a school-sponsored sport, they're both getting the same opportunity, so it's not showing favoritism to spend more money on one than the other. However, if money for activities is tight, it might be wise for parents to establish a yearly plan for how to cover activities, rather than just saying "yes" to the first child who asks.
  • As children age, the financial piece can loom even larger. Again, what's fair is not necessarily what's equal, but differences should be justified. If one child decides to pursue a certificate at a community college, while another pursues a four-year degree, you may choose to give each the same amount toward their expenses—or you may offer to cover more of the four-year degree if you can afford it, since it will cost your child more. The same line of thinking may come into play when writing a will; perhaps it's fair to leave more to a child with special circumstances that leave them less financially stable than their brothers and sisters. To avoid hurt feelings, be sure there is clear justification for treating siblings differently and address your decision openly, so it doesn't come as a surprise. If the relationship between your children is already strained, treating them differently when it comes to finances may further damage their relationship, if they don't agree with your rationale. In some cases, exactly equal treatment may be the safest bet.

Readers share their thoughts about favoritism:

"We are fully transparent with our kids as to who is the current favorite. Because it rotates! It gives them something to strive for. Half joking, but I think it's important to recognize the positives of each child instead of always the negative. Not always easy! And the ones who are the most challenging tend to be the ones who need the most encouragement." —Jill

"I tell both of my kids they are my favorite, but not to tell the other one! Seriously, though, my daughter has always thought I favored my son, and she really believes it, even though I don't believe it is true and I have tried to convince her." —Diane

"I have two adult children, and if you were to go to each of them separately and ask who Mom's favorite is . . . they would each guess the other was. I guess I did OK!" —Terri

"My favorite is whichever one I'm with at the time ..." —Beth

Written by Jennifer Reynolds, West Michigan Woman's staff writer, and her mom's favorite.


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