Playing favourites, although often apparent by how parents talk about or treat a particular child in the family, is often a taboo topic most parents will avoid at all costs.
Indeed, if you ask any ‘good’ parent out there if they have a favourite child, most would probably say no. However, research shows many in fact do have a favourite child – whether they admit to it or not.
A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Marriage and Family a study by J. Jill Suitor and others found that 75 per cent of mothers admitted to being closer to one of their adult children.
Also, in a study back in a 2005 study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers discovered that 74 per cent of mothers and 70 per cent of fathers showed preferential treatment to at least one child.
Although parents may fool themselves they do not have a favourite child, the proof is often there, hidden in plain sight for all to see.
Finding out who is the favourite child in a home is as simple as finding anyone on the streets and asking them who the favourite in their family was; no matter their age those who have once been children in a home will quickly give an answer.
Children always know who the favourite child in their family is, especially if parents are open about it based on how they treat a particular child or constantly praise the good qualities of that one child above all the good qualities of the other child or children.
However, although it is common for parents to have a favourite child, as is even evident in the Bible with the story of Joseph and Jacob, playing favourites may seem innocent, but it comes with its share of burdens for the children involved.
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Reson Sindiyo, a Counselling Psychologist and founder of Resilience Psychology Counselling, says there are a variety of reasons why a parent or parents may naturally be drawn to one child more than all the others.
Sindiyo, firstly, says there is the usual favouritism parents show towards the youngest child, which is most common and generally accepted as normal behaviour as the youngest child is often seen as the baby of the house and in need of more attention.
“A parent may find themselves being more drawn to a child who is similar to them, is most like them or reminds them of themselves. A child who is a ‘mini-me’ of the said parent. This is because they may find they understand the child more and it is easier to form a bond with the said child unlike the child or children who may be very different from them,” she says.
“Parents may also favour the child who shines brightest, the go-getter or the best-looking one, or the child who does well in school and is most talented. Basically, the child who represents the parents’ views of what successful parenting looks like.”
Sindiyo also believes parents may also favour a child who may remind them of a loved one.
“There are parents who will favour one child because they look like and have similar mannerisms to their parent who passed on or a sibling. Other times because the child is sickly or maybe gets into more trouble more often than the other children. The reasons are varied and wide and sometimes very individual and context-specific.”
She, however, says that while it is natural and even common to have a favourite child, parents must ensure they do not openly show preferential treatment of that one child over the others as this is not only detrimental to the other children, but could lead to negative long-lasting effects even after the parent or parents are long gone.
“When parents are blatantly obvious about who the favourite child is by openly engaging in preferential treatment, the other child or children may suffer from low self-esteem, self-worth, or struggle with insecurities and even people pleasing because they feel they are lacking and not worthy because they are not like the ‘golden child’,” says Sindiyo.
“It could also set children up for depression. The other child may believe they are not good enough and may rebel and develop behavioural problems in an attempt to become the complete opposite of the ‘golden child’. These are feelings they will continue to battle with even after they become adults if they are not dealt with. A wounded child grows up into a wounded adult.”
According to Sindiyo, the favourite ‘golden child’ is also not left unscathed by their parent or parents’ behaviour of openly playing favourites.
“The favourite child may grow up with a sense of entitlement, throw tantrums and have a sense of superiority. Other times, they may suffer from the weight of guilt for getting all the attention while their sibling is ignored. They may feel pressure to constantly perform or to be perfect to maintain their status.”
Sindiyo says favouritism can also lead to jealousy, resentment and sibling rivalry even after the parents are long gone, and it can also compromise the quality of parental relationships.
The psychologist advises that even though as a parent you may have a favourite, parents should be intentional about creating an environment where every child feels seen, heard and is celebrated.
“Parents should be intentional about identifying the talents and unique contributions of all their children and openly celebrating and nurturing them. If possible, they should ensure they spend quality time with each child. Take intentional steps to ensure that each child feels seen and appreciated for who they are,” she says.
Sindiyo adds that although it is not always evident to a parent they are playing favourites, they should try and be constantly aware, present and introspective as they parent their children, and if they find it difficult to do so, they should ask for advice from those they trust to observe them in their role and give feedback.
She says that although it may not be apparent to one they may be playing favourites in their role as parents, signs are many and varied.
The signs to look out for include: “Always talking about one child to other people although you have another or other children. The favourite child sets the ‘ideal’ bar for comparison with the others.
“If there is a conflict between siblings the parents always say their favourite is not in the wrong; gets more privileges and fewer chores than the others; gets more pocket money or other benefits; is given lighter punishment and their bad behaviour is often overlooked.”