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Playing favorites with one's children is clearly a moral grey area at best...so why do we do it when should be treating all our children equally?

I'm a personality psychologist by training, and particularly well-exposed to heritability research through my alma mater, so I can appreciate the power of genetic variation and individual experience on personality. Sex of the parent may determine the favored sex, and I'd bet that the rarer sex among more than two siblings of different sexes would see some special treatment more often than not too.

What are the primary factors that can contribute towards parental favoritism towards their children, and how can it be avoided and overcome?

Is it ever okay? Even if not, are there relatively good reasons that are particularly worthy of sympathy or difficult to avoid as a parent?

This post is inspired by the question Why do some parents prefer some children more than others?.

Also, on a personal note, I'm not a parent yet myself, but I plan to be, and am leaning toward fathering more than one. I'm an only child, so I have no direct familial experience myself, and limited access to the intimate details of my friends' experiences with their parents and siblings. We're all just reaching the parenting age ourselves, so no one I know personally has had to grapple with favoritism toward their own children either, as far as I know.

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I'm sorry if edited this too far. But I tried to be as fair and specific as possible. I found some of the point too philosophical and although they were optional i found them to be adding noise. Link's to your friend's blog removed since they were irrelevant to the question. –  Bleeding Fingers Jan 29 at 19:42
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I've purged the previous comments, as they are now obsolete (and weren't terribly productive, anyway). @BleedingFingers Thank you for the edits. They are exactly what the question needed. –  Beofett Jan 29 at 19:51
    
Answerers may wish to review all the additional information that has been removed from the OP in the edit history to accommodate breadth complaints. If you've got any info on or experience with disfavor, or 3+ siblings, or would like to consider some basic factors I already know of, or see a related question here on parenting.SE, you might be interested in the noise. Bear with all the red strikethrough, and feel welcome to edit it back in if you find it helpful. You can represent your own interests, and you can help decide what is useful to the community. You may have been shortchanged here. –  Nick Stauner Jan 29 at 20:12
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It is an interesting question to be sure, but I do wonder if it is more of a "discussion" oriented question. I'd be interested to know if any sscientific research has been done on the matter - sounds like good coffee house convo though. –  balanced mama Jan 30 at 4:08
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Unfortunately, that chat content is gone now...but on the upside, Star Trek: TNG is definitely better with rainbow-colored beanies. –  Nick Stauner Feb 26 at 22:28

3 Answers 3

First of all, recognize there is a difference between having a favorite, and engaging in favoritism. I think having a favorite is somewhat unavoidable, unless your children all happen to have personalities that mesh equally well with yours. When having a favorite becomes problematic is when you let it affect your words and actions toward your children.

The distinction between having a favorite and engaging in favoritism can be seen in some of the contradictory results from this related cogsci answer. 75% of children felt they were the favorite, but only 10% felt they were favored. In my opinion, most conscientious parents (in Western cultures at least) are aware of their bias, but actively work to overcome it.

The reasons for having a favorite child are similar to reasons for having a favorite friend:

  • Your personalities mesh better.
  • They cause you less grief.
  • They don't get on your nerves.
  • They respond better to your natural parenting style.
  • They listen to you more.
  • They actively seek ways to help you.
  • They have similar interests.
  • They are more naturally affectionate.
  • They aren't as needy.

Also, your favorite can change over time, as your and your children's personalities develop. I think this is one reason why eldest and youngest children are more likely to be favorites than the middle child. The eldest has more maturity first and the youngest enters behavioral phases last, after parents already have experience dealing with those phases.

Some might argue that many of these reasons are a result of favoritism, not a cause, but in my opinion these attributes are primarily nature, not nurture. Otherwise, why wouldn't all your kids be nurtured to be like your favorite?

The way to avoid favoritism is to be aware you have a risk of it, and basically constantly evaluate yourself. Make it a point to spend time with each child in equal measure. Young kids especially are keenly aware of any appearance of unfairness and this is actually very useful in learning to overcome your bias. If you've done too much with one child, the others usually have no problem reminding you.

If you find yourself disciplining one child more than another, make a point to frequently evaluate if you are doing it because he truly needs it more, or because you are engaging in favoritism. Make rules and consequences as consistent as possible between children, taking into account their individual ages and ability levels.

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+1 for recognising that children are people. As such, you may well just like one more than the other. I have heard several friends sayings "I love my child but I don't always like them." –  dave Jan 30 at 3:03
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Awesome answer! The only thing I might add is that as a parent you have a lot of influence on your child's character (in the earlier years, before peers gain influence, and subject to the child's basic nature, of course). If you model cheerfulness, even in the face of adversity, or inclusivity, or being a good sport, or fairness, or honesty, or social warmth, or any other positive trait that people like, your child will eventually start demonstrating it back at you. I.e., you can try to raise a child that you will like. And one of the things you model is fairness, to all your children. –  Ossum's Mom Jan 30 at 12:13

Why do some parents have a favorite (or least favorite) child?

One possible answer would be that there are parents who want to see a version of themselves in their children - or what they would like to have been. The children that match that view are favored, those who don't are less favored.

Imagine a major league football player who has a son who goes into art school. If the parent is one of those I am writing about, he will dislike the child, since he did not go into his footsteps. However, the situation may be opposite if the parent was a painter or a sculptor.

Such approach is wrong. We should love our children unconditionally and let them become - professionally - whatever they want to become.

The most important thing is what kind of person they will become. Our role is to teach them to be good, to respect other people, to be tolerant. And not to force them to becoming mirror images of us. In such cases the mirror turns out to be heavily distorting... And the children end up unhappy.

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Good point! Living anew through one's children seems to be a common temptation. It's likely to interfere with the self-determination of children's identities, and to bias parental evaluations in the more "mirrored" directions. Identity and individuality are particularly underemphasized issues in modern research (would love it if you've got any though!), yet the importance of those developmental processes (and freedom thereof!) is often recognized and understood quite well through personal experience. Thank you! –  Nick Stauner Jan 29 at 16:44

One of the possible reasons is fear. You are a psychologist, I am probably telling you nothing new with this sentence :) but here is an example of how it can work:

My aunt has two children younger than me. The boy is two years older than the girl. My aunt and uncle were always afraid that the older boy might start bullying his defenseless little sister. As a result, they always solved conflict in her interest. When the two children started screaming, the parents came, reprimanded them for fighting. Both children were trying to explain their viewpoint, but the adults were not listening. They just said "Stop fighting and screaming, you should be civilized children and not wild beasts, so hush. And [son's name], I don't want you bothering your sister! I don't want to hear any excuses. "

Even to my teenage self, this seemed unfair to both children, especially to my male cousin. I don't even know if they liked the girl more, it was an automatic wish to protect her from the stronger child where no such protection was needed.

Now both my cousins are young adults. They both have some nice character features, but my female cousin is also a spoiled brat and my male cousin is always doing what others tell him, afraid to speak his mind.

Fear is a great blinder. So, don't let your fears as a parent to blind you into favoritism... or maybe your fear of being a favorising parent to blind you to some other kind of mistake.

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Au contraire, I think you've raised a useful point! I think I can relate, but don't know if this has been studied. Family relationships are complex and dynamic with this many members. In cases such as this, de facto disfavor (one of the flip-sides of this issue I originally intended to inquire about) can arise as a balancing response to unfair sibling rivalry. This may not reflect true, global preference for the "underdog", but it might have similar consequences. Yet I can certainly sympathize with their reasons. –  Nick Stauner Feb 9 at 23:45
    
Thank you for sharing your experiences. They're particularly interesting as a reflection of the potential for parents to create problems for fear of other problems arising, even when acting on good intentions. Your point about not responding to the threat of favoritism with fear is also worthy of recognition. Cheers! :) –  Nick Stauner Feb 9 at 23:46

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