Do you have a favorite child? Don’t be so quick to deny it. Last month in Time Magazine’s cover story on parental favoritism, the author, Jeffrey Kluger, states: “It’s one of the worst kept secrets of family life that every parent has a preferred son or daughter… . And on pain of death, parents insist none of [this] is true.” While the parents may deny it, Kluger claims each child in the family is well aware of their favoritism status, or lack thereof. As I read his well-researched article, I found myself arguing out loud with some of his conclusions. Now, talking to myself is not an uncommon occurrence (I have some of my best conversations that way), but a heated discussion with a magazine is a little out of character.
I stewed over that article for a while, and then screwed up my courage and sat down with my eldest son. In the face of Kluger’s certainty, I approached the conversation with some trepidation:
Me: I read this article that claims that all parents have a favorite child, and that every child in the family is aware of it. So, I was wondering if you thought I had a favorite.
Son #1 (who is our second child): Sure, I’m your favorite; and yeah, I think the others know it.
Son #2 (who is our third child) was sitting in the other room, and overhearing the conversation, came to join us: I don’t know what family you’re living in, but I’m clearly the favorite in this one.
Right about then, their younger sister (our fourth and youngest child) walked through the room.
Son #1 and #2 almost in unison: Oh man, it is SO her. She is absolutely your favorite.
Youngest Daughter, after a brief explanation of the topic, shrugged and grinned knowingly (with just a hint of sheepishness thrown in for good measure) at both brothers, then pirouetted out of the room.
When I asked why (OK, maybe “demanded proof” might be the better choice of words) they thought I favored their younger sister, they cited the following.
- She was allowed to watch three or four (the exact number was the subject of a surprising amount of discussion that I’m embarrassed to say I participated in) PG 13 movies before she was 13. Not only were they not allowed to watch PG 13 movie before that magical age, I also didn’t let them watch some “perfectly acceptable” TV shows, such as Seinfeld. (One fateful day I came upon Son #1 watching Seinfeld and made him turn it off because “Seinfeld might as well be rated R”—a statement I’ve certainly come to regret if not for its inaccuracy, but for how often he has thrown it back at me.)
- She got a cell phone when she was 15, while both boys had to wait until they were 16. If Eldest Daughter had been home, she would have added that she had to wait until she was 17.
Their proof of favoritism supports my theory that what children often see as favoritism is more a difference in parenting caused by more experience, changed circumstances, or sheer weariness. We did allow Youngest Daughter to see a few PG13 movies, but only because when we wanted to go to the movies as a family, the older kids, most specifically Son #1, complained so much about having to see “some stupid G rated movie” that the evening was ruined for all of us, unless we allowed him a fair share of the selecting. Needless to say, he was only interested in seeing PG 13 movies. As for the cell phone, by the time the youngest reached high school, cell phones were much more prevalent, and we were more comfortable about how to set limits on the potential down sides. Also, no doubt we were worn down by the constant arguments from four kids as to why we were stuck in the telephone dark ages, and quite frankly, it wasn’t worth the fight.
Although my sons didn’t mention it, they easily could have pointed out other perks with being the youngest, not the least of which is that she has more parental time and attention since there are now only two kids full time in our house, and soon she will be the only one. Although from her standpoint all this parental attention is a decidedly mixed blessing, it comes with some significant advantages. At the risk of sounding defensive, my point is that this is more luck of the birth/adoption order, not favoritism.
Kluger argues forcefully that favoritism is part and parcel of being a parent. In essence, he says we can’t help ourselves. From the research he cites, there doesn’t seem to be a set pattern of favoritism, but first and last born are often chosen. Mothers often prefer the first born son and fathers the last born daughter. In two children families, parents often split their favorites. He says the best we can do is try to keep this information to ourselves.
I am not convinced, and I think my objections go beyond simple denial. In fact, I’ll freely admit that some of my kids are easier for me to parent. Research supports that we come into this world with a certain general temperament. (We did a fantastic Creating a Family show recently on the whole nature vs. nurture debate—Is Genetics or the Environment Most Important in Determining Who Our Kids Will Be?) Both parents and kids have a general personality and ways of interacting in this world, and some temperaments fit more naturally together than others. But, humans are not static beings, and children in particular are constantly growing and developing. Parental personalities are more set, but life circumstances change. With all of this changing and growing going on, who is the “easy” child is constantly changing as well. The status of “easiest child” has flowed to each of my kids, but I still contend that that month’s easy child is not my favorite child.
I work with the youth at our church each week and raised this subject over dinner with a group of five middle school girls. I was blown away by most of their ready answers. Three of the girls immediately responded that their parents had favorites; while the other two thought not. Of the three that acknowledged favoritism, two, both in two children families, thought their parents split favorites, and they didn’t seem to mind. One girl, however, the eldest in a three child family, was clearly frustrated when she told us both her parents favored the youngest daughter, who is four years younger.
Her: She gets to do everything earlier than I did. Like she got to use the computer when she was 9, and I had to wait until I was 11. And they don’t make her do some of the same stuff they made me do. I had to walk the dog when I was 7, but my parents didn’t make her walk the dog until she was 8 or 9.
Me: Do you think it could be that your parents have learned a thing or two by parenting you and your brother, and they make changes to what they do based on what they learned?
Her: I’m definitely the guinea pig in the family, but they shouldn’t change what they do.
Me: So, if they baked you a birthday cake, and it flopped because they made a mistake, they should not correct their mistake when they are baking a cake for her birthday.
Her: Right!! [long pause] Well, that’s not a good example because I don’t care about the cake. But everything else they should do the same.
Her examples of favoritsm sounded to my parental ear like the run of the mill advantages of youngest status rather than favoritism, but her pain was real. I don’t live in her home, and it is possible that her parents do favor the younger daughter. But isn’t is also possible that some kids are hyper sensitive to fairness and less flexible at sharing parental time and attention?
A couple of days later, when my family was sitting around the fire talking, I raised the subject again. The first time around, I had sensed a certain tongue in cheek quality to our conversation, and I wanted a truer measure of what they really thought. Son #1 and Youngest Daughter both said they didn’t really think there was a favorite in our family. Now, whether they really believe that or were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear, I don’t know, but they seemed genuine. Son #1, clearly missing the point of what parents need and want, said that if we had a favorite it would be Daughter #1 since she no longer lives at home, and thus is the least work and worry for us. I decided my explanation of the parental desire to be needed and the nature of parental worry would be lost on him. I did notice that Son #2 was suspiciously quiet during our conversation. Hummm, think I’ll go wake him up to spend some quality time with him.
I will be interviewing Jeffrey Kluger for this week’s Creating a Family radio show/ podcast about his new book, The Sibling Effect: What Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us. Favoritism is one subject covered in this excellent book about siblings. We’ll also be talking about birth order, age spacing, and other fascinating topics that affect how we relate to our siblings.