My daughter's smile faded, and she turned her face away from me as, once again, I read her brother's favorite story instead of her's. Her discouraged face haunted me as I realized that I combed his hair first, gave him his bath first and took his hand first up the walk to Grandma's front door. Favoritism.
Could it be true that my son was my favorite child? I had never admitted it to anyone — not even to myself. And many mothers don't. It puts us in league with Cinderella's wicked stepmother. We want to believe that we will love all children equally.
SPECIAL CHEMISTRY IS NOT UNUSUAL
Favoritism seeps through the cracks. It's hard to be fair with children and we assume a certain child is usually innocent. We perk up at a certain child's greeting. We talk with one more than the others. The feelings behind these actions are normal. "It is not unusual to feel a special chemistry with one child," says child psychologist Andrew Christensen. "Problems occur when you consistently offer one child special consideration, responsibilities or privileges."
It's true that my son and I are so much alike that I understood him from the time he was little. I didn't have to work so hard to know how to handle him. Yet some parents favor their children with personalities opposite to their own. Paula Young favors her most disagreeable daughter, Linda, over her other children. Linda is just like Young's husband. Even in the stormy times of her marriage, she prefers Linda for those same assertive qualities that first attracted her to her mate.
THE PHYSICAL RESEMBLANCE EFFECT
Physical resemblance affects parents' feelings, also. Family counselor Chery Lowe remembers a relative who favored her daughter who looked and acted like a much-loved aunt. On the other hand, if you resent a sister who was favored and your daughter reminds you of that sister, you might ignore your daughter to undo your hurtful past.
Most parents favor a child for the same reasons they favor anyone – beauty, brains or charm. Conversely, a sickly or high-strung child forces an already weary mother to muster up more energy to attend to him. For example, Denise favors her affectionate son over her temperamental one. He hugs her every morning, pats her on the knee as he passes by and says "thank you" without being reminded. Yet some parents favor the difficult child because they know that others don't. They defend the troublemaker – "His third grade teacher was so harsh. I'll make it up to him."
Nobody wins, even the favored child. Classic favorite children, like Cinderella's stepsisters, become tyrants. To secure their favored position, they may double their efforts to be the favorite or point out negatives about siblings. When they get into the real world, they're shocked that everyone doesn't treat them with such preference.
Build on your children's strengths. Christensen says, "Find qualities and talents in each child that you can nurture and show special attention to." One child may be artistic, another have a curious nature and still another be a good conversationalist.
The best way to get to know a less-favored child is to spend time alone with him. Do things that both of you like. Help him open up by talking to him about your fears and joys, and by asking questions.
- Allow for differences. The advice "Treat your children the same" doesn't work. Their uniqueness will require different types of love from you – one child will like to wrestle and the other will like to cuddle. Even if they both like wrestling, a child bent on feeling unfavored will point out that you wrestled with his brother one minute longer.
- Watch for comparisons. Comparisons don't motivate children to shape up; they backfire. Billy's parents scold him for not being as neat as his sister so he decides not to even try to keep his room clean.
- Make amends. As you pay more attention to the less-favored child, you may want to talk with him about your previous favoritism if you think he noticed it. As I cuddled and rocked my perceptive 4-year-old daughter for a long time, I told her that she was a special child to me, my only girl. I confessed that I had given my son special attention and that I was sorry.
My son went to kindergarten that year, and even in the midst of starting a home business, I stopped to play cards with my daughter. I gave her a special nickname. As the months passed, our relationship grew closer, and I discovered how delightful my "opposite" daughter could be.
GETTING TO KNOW HIM
Here's how to get to know your less-favored child a little bit better:
- Spend time alone with him.
- Do things that both of you like to do.
- Encourage him to open up to you by opening up a little yourself. Discuss your joys and fears and he'll be more likely to do the same.
- Allow for differences, and stop trying to treat each of your children the same. They're all different and should be treated as such.
- Try not to compare.
- If you think it's appropriate, make amends with your child and explain to him why you used to favor his sibling over him.
— Jan Johnson is a freelance writer and the author of Growing Compassionate Kids (Upper Room Books; $12.)