Dr. Martha Edwards, a psychologist at The Ackerman Institute, says that before families can fix the problem of playing favorites, parents must understand the root of their behavior.
On Monday's The Early Show, Edwards will discuss why favoritism occurs and the ramifications of favoring one child over another.
Why favoritism happens:
- One child's temperament is easier and another is more difficult.
- One child's temperament fits better with the parent than another, e.g., active go-getter child is favored and the placid, quiet child gets ignored (or vice versa)
- One child seems more like the parent than another. (Another version of a good fit.)
- One child fits parental expectations more than another:
Interests/talents - the athlete, artist or scholar may be preferred or rejected, depending on the family's values and interests.
- Circumstances of the child's birth
Child is conceived when the parent's parent is ill or dying. This might make the child particularly precious, almost as if the spirit of the ailing parent was infused into the child. Or it might make it quite difficult to make a bond with that child because of a preoccupation with stress, grief, or depression.
Child conception is unexpected or poorly timed - It could be right after birth of older child, late in life.
- Child has difficulties that result in parents' overprotection and attention -- e.g., chronic illness. The healthy children may feel out of favor.
- Favoring one child over another could be an indirect way of expressing marital conflict or divorce. The child is who less favored may be more like the spouse with whom one is in conflict.
Ramifications of favoritism for the children
- For the child who is out of favor:
Makes it hard for the child to accept and like himself if he doesn't feel accepted and liked by his parents. The child may suffer from chronic low self-esteem.
Gives the child a sense of unfairness in the world. Unfairness begets unfairness and the child may begin treating others in ways that are unfair.
- For children who are favored - Surprisingly they suffer the same or even more than the less-favored child.
These children may have a well-developed sense of fairness and some may feel that they are getting "goodies" they haven't earned. If these "goodies" are given for no particular reason, then they could be taken away for no particular reason. Hidden symptoms of favored children may be anxiety.
Other favored children may feel they have to perform at a high level or they will lose their favored status - get good grades, never get angry. Could also trigger feelings of anxiety or insecurity.
Favored children may also feel a huge sense of entitlement. They are given unearned goodies by their parents, and they expect others to do the same. Others are not going to be as willing to do this as their parents. This creates problems for them with peers, teachers, and others in their lives.
Favored children may see the world in a "black and white" way - one child is "all good" and another child is "all bad." Life isn't like this and it creates a rigid way of thinking about others and makes it difficult to problem solve.
- For children favoritism may cause sibling rivalry between siblings who are understandably resentful and jealous or who are afraid of losing their favored status.
- For the marriage
Marital conflict may occur when one parent favors one child over another, and the other parent perceives it, worries about the effect on the child, tries to stop the favoring parent, over-compensates for the child out of favor.
How to avoid playing favorites
- Accept that you are human and that one child may reach you in a way that others don't.
- Listen to others who might be trying to tell you that you favor one child over another (your child, your spouse). Let go of defensiveness and hear what they are saying and begin observing yourself for signs of favoritism.
Empathize with your child if they come to you with a favoritism concern. Do not try and defend it. Minimize comparison. Say " I miss spending time with you too. What would you like to do?"
- "Love uniquely, not equally" - Don't try to love or treat each child equal to the others. See each child for his/her uniqueness, notice it, and acknowledge it to them. Actively observe your child to identify unique characteristics, skills and interests and reflect these back to your child.
Do not keep a scorecard. For example "I took your sister shopping on Saturday so I am taking you on Sunday." This can do a lot of harm.
Do things that interest each child. Do no take a child shopping if they don't need it or even like it. What you do depends on the uniqueness of the child.
During holidays buy what interests the child, but do not buy one child a $100 gift and the other a $30.
- If there is something about a particular child that gets to you - either positively or negatively, think about what this particular characteristic means to you and why you may be responding strongly to it.
- Avoid labeling or over-praising each child. For example, rather than saying, "You are my scholar," or "This is wonderful!" describe the specific positive behavior, "Johnny, you spelled all of the words in your homework correctly."
- Develop a relationship with each child, spending "alone time" with each.
The more children you have the more complex finding this time becomes. You must make an effort to find unique qualities in each child and spend special time with each child.
Get creative if you have many children - cook with them. "We have a lot of meals to make. Who wants to cook with me Monday, Tuesday, etc." Involve kids in problem solving.
- Be careful of "knee jerk" reactions that might repeat patterns of favoritism. Take time to react to think before you react.