My parents always told me and my sister that my brother was their favorite. They had their reasons: He was their only boy and their baby. Not all parents are as blunt as mine were about playing favorites, but nonetheless, most of them do. In a study conducted by family sociologist Katherine Conger of the University of California, Davis, more than 70 percent of parents admitted to having a favorite child.
So, if you always suspected that your mom liked your sister more, you may actually be right, even if your mom never came out and said it. And if your family is at all like mine, playing favorites probably shaped much of your childhood. The effects of my parent's preferences — and their openness about them — were profound and long-lasting. I wish I could've told them this.
Here's what I wish I could have said then:
Disputes between siblings are normal and can be used to help children learn how to deal with conflict. But when one child is always favored, different lessons are learned. My brother learned how to use his favored status to cause conflict without consequence, and my sister and I learned how to use conflict to gain favor over each other and avoid being at the bottom of the hierarchy. My sister and I would misbehave just to blame it on our sibling and hope to gain favor with our parents. I once carved my sister’s name into the wall and then showed my mom, telling her my sister did it.
These problems didn’t end once we all left the house, either. A large part of why I never really became close to my brother is that as a child my feelings about him were primarily a reaction to him being favored. Jealousy and resentment were ever present, affecting even the best times. My parents favoring him painted my perception of him, and as a result I never really got to know him as a person.
We were obsessed with being treated exactly the same. We had to get the same amount of everything, and we didn’t trust our parents to be fair. At every meal, food had to be divided evenly, unless of course it was something we hated, like broccoli. If my brother got an extra scoop of potatoes, I’d scream until it was corrected. We’d add up the price of our Christmas gifts in an attempt to prove someone was favored. If they all cost about the same, we’d look for whose gifts seemed like they were more personalized, or wrapped with better paper.
And we weren’t so much looking to get more for ourselves, but we were looking for proof of our parent’s favoritism. I didn’t care about the extra scoop of potatoes; most of the time I didn’t even really want more, I just cared that I was being treated unfairly.
As a child, I thought all kids were like this, but now that I have children of my own, I know better. Although my kids have had moments of jealousy, for the most part they understand that I am trying to be as fair as possible and they don’t have to measure their pieces of cake.
Although my parents always assured me that they loved us the same, I was perfectly aware that they liked my brother better. I tried hard — probably too hard — to win their approval. I failed almost every time, and with each failure I felt like something was wrong with me. I mean, if my parents didn’t like me, why would anyone else? This insecurity followed me into adulthood, and is still with me even though my parents aren’t.
And most importantly,
We all naturally get along with some people easier than others. It’s only natural that this is also the case with our children. The ease in which I get along with my children varies in degree, so I get how easy it is to play favorites without even realizing it. And I think this is what happens most of the time; it is rarely a parent’s intent to play favorites.
But the impact it can have on your relationship with your kids is much different. I don’t think my mom intended to spend more time talking to my sister, but she did. And other than the hurt that made me feel, it also made it really difficult for us to get to a better place. She put so much effort into the easier relationship that she didn’t have much time left to work on ours. As a result, we never worked past the things that made our relationship difficult and she never really got to know me. I wish she would’ve tried a little harder instead of focusing on the relationship that was easier for her.
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