Few parents would ever admit (at least out loud) to having a favorite child—unless they were trying to cause conflict. But ask any group of siblings if there was a favorite child and many times they’ll agree that, yes, so-and-so was the Golden Child while so-and-so was the Family Goat (or black sheep, depending on the family).
If you’re a parent of more than one kid, what do you think your kids will say later on when they’re adults? Are you playing favorites without even knowing it, and if you are, how will it affect your kids?
So how do you know if you have a favorite kid, even if you can’t quite admit it to yourself? Here are five signs that you might be playing favorites:
- Your younger child “gets away” with a lot more than your older child, who can become resentful. This is common and often related to favoritism of younger children.
- You find yourself more relaxed around a favored child. You smile more, laugh more, and are less stressed.
- Your tone and choice of words changes when discussing your children with outsiders, including friends, teachers and others.
- You have uneven expectations for your children. Paradoxically, lower expectations are often a sign of favoritism, while unfavored children are frequently held to a higher standard on chores, behavior, and even academic performance.
- You get very defensive and uncomfortable when the topic of favoritism comes up, possibly as a way to hide guilt.
According to Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a psychotherapist, columnist for Psychology Today and author of The Favorite Child, it’s normal for most parents to have a favorite child, and that favoritism isn’t the same as withholding love. After all, Dr. Libby writes, “No children are identical, making it impossible for any two children to be treated the same.”
Moreover, favoritism can be fluid, depending on ages and stages—a favorite toddler may slip in parental estimation when he or she becomes as unruly teen, while their previously meek sibling emerges as a star student.
Yet favoritism predictably has a number of negative consequences, beyond the self-esteem issues it can cause in non-favored children. Children are highly sensitive to their parent’s emotional states, so they often instinctively know who the favorite child is (although a study that appeared in the journal The Gerontologist found that kids are only right half the time when they try to pick a favored child). When parents overcompensate or make up excuses about favoritism within the family, it can undermine your child’s confidence in his or her perception of reality. Favoritism can also undermine sibling relationships, as the balance of parental approval is uneven.
Reviewed by Eva Benmeleh, March 2020
- Favoritism is common.
- Favoritism can be fluid, shifting from one child to another throughout life.
- Playing favorites (with one consistently favored child especially) can cause long-term damage to your children and family.
- Signs you’re playing a favorite include how you talk about, act around, and think about your children.