Is it natural for parents to have a favourite child?

The playground chatter has finally come clean. Parents are talking about how maybe, just maybe, they prefer one child over the others

Illustration by Amedeo de Palma

I’m pregnant with my second child. One night I wondered aloud to my boyfriend, “How am I possibly going to love this baby as much as my daughter? I just can’t see it.”

Immediately, I felt guilty for having such an awful thought. This baby is a blessing. My boyfriend, a father of two, told me I’d be amazed at the capacity of my heart to expand. Yet I was, and am, doubtful. Do I already have a favourite? Will my eight-year-old always be my number one? And am I setting up my new addition for a lifetime of therapy bills?

Hard-wired to have a favourite?
Admitting you have a favourite child is a hot topic, thanks to magazine cover stories in Time and Psychology Today. And Anderson Cooper delved into the issue on his TV show with a segment about how parents are hard-wired to have a favourite, featuring guest Jeffrey Kluger, the author of The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us. Kluger believes we shouldn’t fight “science,” claiming first-born children are most likely to be the favourites because parents invest the most time and energy in them. He also finds mothers offer the most “compassion” to the youngest.

Playground confessions
The playground chatter has finally come clean. Parents are talking about how maybe, just maybe, they prefer one child over the others.

“The discussion about having a favourite child has to do with the surge in confessional mommy bloggers and this generation of mothers “saying and telling it like it is,” says Shawna Cohen, a mother of two and editor-in-chief at mommyish.com, a controversial parenting site. “For the first time, parents at least feel it’s safe to joke about it, or admit that secretly they do have a favourite – to friends or their partners.”

She compares having a favourite child to women who have a close circle of friends and, within that circle, how the dynamics can change. “You hang out with one friend sometimes more than the others or have a better vibe with one friend over your other best friend some weeks. That’s what it’s like with children, but on an hourly basis.”
Most parents (if they can get over what they consider a completely verboten question that shouldn’t be asked) will admit that “whoever is being easiest at the time is my favourite.” But many won’t go as far as to say they have a constant favourite.

Definitely no favourites
“No, I really don’t. It is not that, well…each kid has a…well, maybe I give my attention when certain things happen to each of my children, um, maybe for different reasons,” sputters mom of four Helen,* when asked if she has a favourite. She is clearly stumped.

Politically correct favourites
Other mothers came up with politically correct answers that could never be used against them, like this one: “Though I don’t have a favourite child because I truly do love my children equally and appreciate them for their differences, on any given day, I enjoy one child more than the other,” says Bronwyn Lee,* a mother of two. “When my older daughter is throwing a fit because she has to get ready for school and then proceeds to take 20 minutes getting out the door, with excuses like ‘I didn’t get to watch the final credits of the movie,’ I look at my toddler son and think, ‘You’re so amazing.’ But when my toddler has to be chased and held in place to put on a snowsuit, won’t wear his mittens and screams ‘Mine!’ about everything in sight, I glance and my eldest and think: ‘You’re so easy.’ It’s rare that both of them are angels at the same time. But I favour them both separately for being exactly who they are.”

Circumstantial or temporary favourites
The other acceptable way of admitting you may have a favourite is to keep it circumstantial – and temporary. Julie Cole is a mother of six. She thinks if mothers do favour a child, it has a lot to do with different stages. “Some parents have favourite ages. Some people hate the toddler stage and prefer the school age, and vice versa.”

When I dared mention to a male friend that one of his children was so clearly his favourite, he argued otherwise. “I may spend more time with one, but that’s because we have the same interest in sports,” he says. “I may be closer to one, but I love them equally.”

Blatant favourites
Even in this day and age of confessional everything, it’s still shocking to see a parent who clearly favours a child unequivocally. Recently, Cohen had a mother over at her house with her two sons. “The mother actually said, ‘My eldest is great, but my baby takes my breath away.’ It was so clear that the baby was her favourite,” says Cohen, horrified.

Favouritism should not be controversial
Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and the author of The Favorite Child, says the fact that this topic is controversial at all is “tragic.”

“There is nothing about favouritism that should be controversial,” she says. “People will admit to having a favourite actor, restaurant or ice cream. It’s human nature to have preferences. It’s inevitable. Each parent has a personality and each child has a personality, and those who are compatible are drawn to each other. It’s a fact of life.

If we acknowledge what is true, that favouritism exists, then we are in a better position for it not to be destructive in families.”

Most parents, she says, don’t understand the difference between love and favouritism. “Of course, we feel a deep profound feeling of attachment to all our children. We love them all equally.”

If we do admit we sometimes have a favourite, there are ways to deal with it without hurting or affecting children. Libby advises that parents shouldn’t judge themselves for having a child they prefer. They should discuss their uncomfortable feelings regarding children who aren’t favoured with their partner or trusted confidants.

Spend quality time with child who isn’t favoured
“Many parents are so quick to deny they have a favourite. But when a child screams at them, ‘You love Johnny more than me’ they should really slow down, take a deep breath, realize this is not a life sentence,and be able to hear what the child is saying,” Libby says. She advises parents to be “deliberate and conscious” about spending quality time with children who aren’t favoured. It’s likely that a child who isn’t preferred has less in common with the parent, who may have trouble relating to their mysterious progeny’s hobbies or unique personality. But practice (sometimes) makes perfect. “The time, ideally, should reflect the interests and personality of that child.”

Never admit it to your children
Libby doesn’t, however, think it’s wise to ever admit to your children you have, or had, a favourite. “We don’t let our children see our lovemaking, so why let them into our hearts about feelings we’re trying to work out?”

***

I can only wait and see what it’s like to have two children. And for parents who can’t seem to grasp the idea that they probably do have a favourite, Libby suggests an interesting proposition: “Ask those parents whom their children would pick as their favourite parent,” she says.

Now that would surely get an interesting reaction. But do we really want to go there?

We did go there! Here’s what to do when your child prefers one parent over the other >

*Name changed by request.

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