It takes many forms and exists for a variety of reasons. Children recognise it more readily than parents do.
When it is not addressed, it can create long-term emotional problems and devastate family relationships.
“It” is parental favoritism, and far more common than you’d like to think.
A large proportion of parents display consistent favoritism towards one child over another. Parental favoritism manifests in different ways such as more time spent with, more affection showered, more privileges, less discipline, or less abuse, all for that one child.
When parents repeatedly single out one child, whether for praise or a slap on the wrist, they are unwittingly contributing to the child’s depression. The less-favored children may have ill-will towards their parents and the preferred sibling.
The favorite child can feel guilty, and experience negative relationships with the other siblings. Prior research has shown that parental favoritism negatively affects mental health and often triggers behavioral problems in children. Such harmful effects persist long into adulthood.
Even after children move out, the parental favoritism still matters, another research announced last week. “Perceived favoritism from one’s parents still matters to a child’s psychological well-being, even if they have been living for years outside the parental home and have started families of their own”, says study researcher Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist.
It does not matter whether you are the chosen child or not; the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings.
Parents tend to prefer oldest or youngest (as opposed to middle) children, and they gravitate towards children who are more similar to them in personal characteristics and values.
Overall, first-borns get the most privileges and last-borns receive the most affection. Also, parents show more warmth to less aggressive children, and in most families with mixed-gender children, these often tend to be girls.
Children with serious health problems or disabilities may be predisposed to parental favoritism, since they require more attention from parents.
Under re-marriage circumstances, biological children may be favored over step-children, although the reverse occurs as well.
Some parents spend more time with and feel closer to same-gender children than to opposite-gender children. In patriarchal culture, parents simply favor male children over female children; same goes for matriarchal culture.
Research by sociologist Jill Suitor examines some of the causes and consequences of parental favoritism, which occurs in families.
A child’s personality and behavior can affect how parents treat him or her. Parents behave more affectionately towards children who are pleasant, and they direct more discipline towards children who act or engage in deviant behavior.
According to Suitor, favoritism is more likely when parents are under a great deal of stress (examples: marital problems, financial worries, etc).
In these cases, parents may be unable to inhibit their true feelings or monitor how fair they are behaving. When emotional or material resources are limited, parents favor children who have the most potentials to thrive.
The causes of parental favoritism, however, are a bit different once the children become adults. Parents still favor daughters and less-deviant children, buy they give preference to children who live closer, share the parents’ values, and, not surprisingly, have provided the parents with emotional or financial support. This sustains the toxic family dynamics such as bad feelings, sibling resentment, etc.
Unfortunately, the consequences of parental favoritism are mostly bad. The black sheep experiences worse outcomes across the board : more depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem and poorer academic performance. These repercussions are far more extreme than any benefits the golden child gets out of it. (Negative things just have a stronger impact on people than positive things).
Many of these consequences persist long after children have grown up and moved out of the house. People do not soon forget that they were disfavored by their parents. And many people report that being disfavored as a child continues to affect their self-esteem and relationships in adulthood.
After the parents have passed away, the golden child is expected to bear more responsibilities for the funeral arrangements, because he or she was the most favored.
Unfortunately, parents often sabotage their own success by making comparisons among their
children. Labeling one child “the creative one” and another “the math genius” can stimulate each child to feel jealous of the other’s talent.
Most parents would never wish to
be cruel to a child, but favoritism can hurt very cruelly, and it is all too easy for parents to overlook.
It is important to keep in mind that parental favoritism is only problematic when there are consistent and arbitrary differences in treatment.
In cases where favoritism is unavoidable (examples: with newborns, needier children,etc), parents who explain its necessity to the other children can usually offset any negative consequences.
When I surveyed parents on the subject of favoritism, nearly all respondents said that despite their best efforts to the contrary, they have favored one child over another, atleast, occasionally.
Some admitted knowing that favoritism is hurtful to their children, and that they try as much as possible to avoid it.
Some parents, however, remain blissfully unaware of the possibility that they sometimes act in ways that reveal a bias towards or against one of their children, even though it may be blatantly obvious to others.
Indeed, it is a serious problem in any family where it is an entrenched pattern, and it affects everyone.
Nearly all parents worry about playing favorites. But, even when they vow to treat their children equally, they realize that this is just not possible.
Every child is different and parents respond to their unique characteristics appropriately.
Every child wants to feel like he or she is different, not clones of other siblings. The best thing parents can do is be aware of any differential treatment they give and try to be as fair as possible.
Unfortunately, children may still perceive favoritism where parents are sure they have been even-handed.
While in some cases, it may be the child’s perception that needs to be worked with and changed, it is important for parents to entertain the idea that it may be their own perception that is biased.
“Parents who have genuinely tried to avoid favoritism are always distressed when their children believe that they have favorites,” says Peter Goldenthal, in ‘Beyond Sibling Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Become Cooperative, Caring, and Compassionate’ .
Director of Child and Family Therapy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Goldenthal recommends that parents try not to be defensive if this occurs.
“Instead of leaping to defend yourself against what may seem like an attack on your parental love,” he advises, “be curious. Try to find out what makes your child believe that you care more about his sister, would rather spend time with her, or appreciate her talents more.”
This approach may help you uncover biases you didn’t even know you had, and may allow you to respond to your children’s needs more effectively.
For this reason, it is important for parents to take inventory of their behaviors toward each of their children.
As you take a more balanced view of your children, also balancing the time you spend with each, it will eventually become natural for you to try to distribute your love and affection equally.
The result will be well worth the effort. When each child is loved for the unique person he or she is, the stage is set for close sibling relationships and healthy family relationships in general.
There is no greater gift parents can give to their children or themselves than this.