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Favortism Among Children

Parents aren’t supposed to play favorites with their kids.  They are supposed to love all their kids equally.  However, each child has his/her own unique personality, and parents recognize their kids as unique individuals.  Those unique personalities, as they interact with their parents’ personalities, are the basis of favoritism.

As kids age from infancy to teenagers, their personalities develop.  Personality traits that may not have been apparent as an infant may become very apparent as a teen.  These personality traits generate an emotional response (i.e., love, frustration, etc.) in parents.  It is human nature:  parents, like people generally, bond more quickly and thoroughly with some personalities than others. 

Parental favorites can evolve over time as the kids’ personalities evolve.  For example, if four-year-old John is favored because he is loving and cuddly, while eight-year-old Mark is disfavored because he is reserved and aloof, what happens when (four years later) eight-year-old John becomes more independent of his parents (i.e., less likely to cuddle and exhibit other behaviors identified as loving by the parents) and 12-year-old Mark begins seeking his father’s counsel about what is happening to his body during this confusing period of early adolescence?  The intuitive answer is that parental favorites may change in these pivotal four years.

Parents can and should suppress their negative emotional responses so as not to act them out in favoritism.  Playing favorites is not a healthy parenting technique.  The emotions underlying favoritism is human nature: the choice to act them out is a measure of a person’s emotional control and maturity.  Favoritism, when acted out, exacts a huge toll on each child and the relationships of the parents and kids.  Disfavored kids grow up feeling hurt, rejected, and ultimately angry.  They typically develop an enduring sense of being disadvantaged and unlovable.  Their relationships with others (especially with their parents) can be permanently damaged.  Favored kids grow up feeling successful, happy, and loved.  That sounds ideal; however, these kids can also develop unrealistic expectations of how others will relate to them (i.e., with adoration).  When adoration doesn’t manifest in other relationships, the realization that adoration is not their entitlement can be a crushing experience.  Relationship “failures” thus become great tragedies.

In choosing not to act out the emotions of favoritism, parents first need to identify what they are feeling and why they are feeling it.  For example, one mother may think, “Ok, I’m feeling frustrated that Jessica never opens up to me.  I feel like she always holds me at arm’s distance.  I feel hurt and rejected, so my response has been to respect that and not try to get close to her anymore.”  Then, identify the potential consequences of the parental response.  For example, the mother may think, “If I keep a distance from Jessica, she will probably grow up thinking that I rejected her, because a child’s mind will likely not grasp the dynamics that are going on here.”  Next, parents must form a plan.  For example, the mother may think, “I don’t want Jessica to feel like I am rejecting her.  I want Jessica to feel loved (but not forced).  So, I guess I will try to strike a balance between Jessica’s need to be loved (even though she doesn’t act like she has that need) and my desire not to feel perpetually rejected.” 

By making choices like those represented in the paragraph above, parents can overcome their own emotions and nurture each of their kids, even the kids that make nurturing them a difficult to do.  It takes courage, to be sure.  Parents have to open themselves up to repeated rejection and a variety of other negative experiences.  However, the long-term pay-off will usually be stronger relationships and kids who grow into emotionally healthier adults.

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