Preferential treatment of certain children by parents, or parental favouritism, is when one or both parents display consistent favouritism towards one child over another. It is one of those topics that has remained off-limit for a lot of people.
Most parents when asked will often reply: Oh, but I love all my children equally! The truth, however, is that it is common for parents to prefer and like a particular child within the family more than they do with the others.
Although subtle and sometimes almost undetectable (unless in extreme situations, most parents do not openly show), research shows that parental favouritism exists in many families.
According to a study by the National Library of Medicine in the UK, up to 74 per cent of mothers and 70 per cent of fathers have been shown to exhibit preferential treatment towards one child.
This preferential treatment can take different forms such as spending more time together with that child, allowing the child more privileges or even less discipline.
Laura, 31, is the fourth born in a family of five children - four girls and a boy. Her mother at the time of marriage had already had the first two children (Lilian and Edna) from a previous marriage.
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The mother, however, left the eldest behind with her mother when she moved into her new husband’s home and for two years she hid her existence until Laura’s father got wind of it.
“I am my father’s favourite,” she says, “and my mother loves Ryan (their last born and the only boy) and sometimes Fiona (the third born).”
“What of Lilian and Edna?” I ask.
“They sort of float around. They belong to no one in particular.”
Several factors influence the preferential treatment of children by their parents. For instance, birth order may play an important part in who a parent favours.
According to a survey by YouGov, those parents who admitted having a favourite child showed a huge preference for the baby of the family, with 62 per cent of parents who have two children opting for their youngest.
About 43 per cent of parents with three or more children prefer their last born, with a third selecting a middle child and just 19 per cent opting for their eldest.
Gender is also an important factor in deciding which child is most favoured by some parents. For instance, boys are generally said to be their mothers' favourites and girls their fathers’, although the opposite can also be true.
Some people try to explain these using Freudian theories of the Oedipus Complex (boys being infatuated by their mothers) and Electra Complex (girls being infatuated by their fathers), but that may not singularly explain it.
In some other situations, the only opposite-sex child, say, for instance, the only girl among boys or vice versa tends to be the favourite of the parents.
In Laura’s family, for example, the mother favours Ryan who is the only boy among four girls and who is also the last born.
“He is forever her baby,” says Laura. “He is untouchable. Growing up, if you beat him you had to answer to her,” she says.
But gender goes beyond just infatuations. Sometimes, like in some African communities such as the Kikuyu where gender and birth position determine from which parents’ side the child is named, parents may tend to lean more towards the children named after their parents.
Joseph, 27, the first born in a family of three was named after his father’s father. He admitted to being closer to his father than the other two boys.
“When I was a child, he would sometimes call me Baba. By the time I was in high school, we hang out a lot, and he would show me off to his friends.”
In Derrick’s case, he felt he had disappointed his father who died before he had gotten a son to name after him. Despite having four daughters who he swears to love, he felt he had failed his father.
At the father’s funeral (which I attended), Derrick as part of his eulogy apologised to his father for not having named anyone after him. In his case, if he is ever blessed with a son, he probably would treasure him a bit more than the girls.
Parents also tend to favour a child that is most like them or one that reminds them of themselves. Parents who see themselves in a particular child, say for instance, that they either resemble them physically or in temperament, will tend to prefer that child over the others.
Parents feel closer to the child who shares the same values. For example, extroverted parents might feel closer to their outgoing child and vice versa.
In general, mothers are most likely to favour the child that is more concerned about the family, or that goes out of their way to ensure her comfort or that of their siblings.
In contrast, fathers tend to lean more towards children who are highly ambitious, possess emotional strength, or even leadership potential.
Other reasons include the career or financial position of the child, level of education and degree of relationship with the children; for example, step-children might not be too close to their step-parents.
When siblings grow up, they start joking about how one was loved more than the other. However, jokes aside, perceived or real favouritism can create a major rift in the family setting and lead to social and mental depression. It is therefore advisable for parents to take caution in how they treat their children.