Playing Favorites

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It’s taboo in our society to admit that we favor one child over another. Yet when Cornell researcher Karl Pillemer interviewed older mothers in the Boston area about their adult offspring, he found, “Most mothers have very distinct preferences. There’s one to whom they feel emotionally close, one with whom they have the most conflict. Parental favoritism is a fundamental part of the family landscape throughout life.” Moreover, he contends, adult children are aware that their parents feel closer to one child than another. “They typically think it is themselves—and they’re typically wrong,” said Pilmer. He says that what counts is who is emotionally closest to the mother, thinks the most like her, and shares her attitudes and values. Also, she (for it is usually a daughter) is the one who provided support for the mother in the past. Surprisingly, marital status, a poor employment record or even drug addiction doesn’t seem to count in the “favorite child” sweepstakes.
     Often the roots of favoritism go back to the earliest days of childhood. Parents may strive to love their children equally, but, according to Elizabeth Wolfson, PhD, a practicing psychotherapist and faculty in the MA Clinical Psychology Program at Antioch University Santa Barbara, “While we may love fully and differently, it is impossible to love equally. Of course, for kids that won’t be enough. Each one wants to be the favorite, the special one.”  Experts say that children often perceive their place in the family in roughly one of three categories, self-definitions that may resonate throughout their lives.

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     The Favored One often grows up to be self-confident, but he also has to contend with a lot of pressure to live up to his parents’ idealized version of him. He may become a habitual pleaser or find adult relationships wanting if they don’t replicate his folks’ 24/7 adulation. The Overlooked One may suffer from what is often referred to as “middle child syndrome.” She may nurse feelings of being ignored, leading her to act as the go-between in the family or clamor for the attention of the leader. The Disfavored One may have low self-esteem and even depression throughout life based on his perceived black sheep status. He may become contentious and preemptively rejecting. On the other hand, since he thinks he has less to lose in his parents’ eyes, he may feel liberated and take greater chances in life.
     There may be more than a kernel of truth in our children’s self-assessment, but the question is what to do about it today? According to Dr. Wolfson, your adult children are entitled to their narrative, and you should resist the temptation to refute it. On the other hand, she says, you don’t have to buy into it. Without dredging up all the old baggage, you might respond to their accusations of favoritism with such phrases as, “I’m sorry that hurt you” or “I didn’t realize you felt that way.” This gives you a way to express empathy without actually apologizing for things you may or may not have done in the dim, dark past. Sometimes it takes years, having children of their own, and/or lots of therapy for children to stop blaming their parents for playing favorites. But if you try to see your offspring as the grownups they have become and they try to see you as a mere mortal with feet of clay, you can all have a more satisfying relationship going forward.