Playing favorites: a parent's struggle to stay fair with kids

Preferring one child over another could resurface once kids are grown up.
If you have more than one child, you've likely played favorites. Isn't it easier to indulge a happy child over one who's quarrelsome? Or to prefer the child who resembles a parent or is better looking than a sibling? And typically parents show more concern for a sick child.
While parents try hard to avoid partiality, Larry Rosenberg, clinical director of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut in Stamford, says parental preference can start during a child's infancy. A parent might ask himself, "When I tickle the baby, does he giggle?" says Greenwich, Conn., psychotherapist Kurt Sperling. "If parents get that kind of response back, then they feel a stronger connection." If the child doesn't respond to the stimulus, that makes the parent feel frustrated, even deficient. "That sets up a scenario where the parent is going to fear rejection from the child," he says.
Being ill matched with a child doesn't necessarily lead to playing favorites, says Rosenberg, but it presents difficulties for parents who would have been more comfortable with a better fit.
'Completely different people'
Greenwich mom Bonnie Krois says while her 20-year-old son, Bryan, had her undivided attention while growing up, now they don't have that much in common. Bryan works in construction and is interested in trucks and heavy equipment, a far cry from the performing arts that attract his mom.
Krois feels closer ties to her 15-year-old daughter, Courtney, who, she says "is definitely more like me." Although Krois admits she probably plays favorites, she doesn't think of it that way. "They are completely different people -- different ages, genders and interests in life," she says. "They are at very different stages in life."
Sometimes parents who feel negatively about a mismatched child overcompensate with that child, says Rosenberg. "You can wind up showing favoritism toward that child when that child is not your favorite." Robin Wall, a Stamford, Conn., receptionist and mother of four, says she does play favorites occasionally. "I don't like to admit it, though. I try not to feel guilty, and usually I don't unless they call me on it." Wall acknowledges that occasionally when she dotes more on youngest daughter, Lindsey, 6, her son Aaron, 7, asks why.
"I explain why I am doing it so they can understand on an intellectual level," she says. "It's not just mommy playing favorites because she's playing favorites." Wall also tries to give them more attention through an act like reading a book to them on the sofa.
Popping up later
If favoritism is part of family dynamics while children are growing up, it becomes baggage, following siblings into adulthood, says Jerome Brodlie, who heads Greenwich Hospital's Department of Psychology.
"I hear that among young adults," he says. "It is destructive. It's like 'Why wasn't I the favorite? What's wrong with me.' That's why it's imperative families try to maintain the balance." Krois still believes her sisters received preferential treatment over her when they were growing up in Montana. As the oldest, she was the designated baby-sitter with the most accountability.
When Krois compared notes with her youngest sister -- whom she believed was their father's favorite -- her sibling told her the two were always fighting.
"Your perceptions are so different from the reality of other people or even from your own parents," says Krois.
Adult point of view
Wall, one of five children, says her parents clearly played favorites while she was growing up and has carried this conviction into adulthood. She says when her family gets together, she's reminded not to make the same mistakes with her brood as her parents did with theirs.
Rosenberg says when children become adults, their parents are often more willing to admit they played favorites. "There is some degree of normalcy connected with the idea that parents have different feelings towards their different children," he says.
As for parents feeling guilty about favoring one child over another, Sperling says he's not sure these feelings are correctable. But a step in the right direction is to ask how one feels toward each child.
"I think it's always a good idea to reflect at the end of the day and think about how you have responded to each child," he says. "Have I been fair with them, and have I given each one an adequate amount of support and validation?" What works for one child may not work for another, he adds. "Simply saying 'I love you, you're a good kid' may not be enough for every child."

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