Do you play favorites with your kids?

Jul 21, 2010 at 3:35 p.m. ET

If you've never been asked by your offspring which of them is your favorite, it's only a matter of time. And though most of us are loathe to admit it, the truth is that many of us do have a favorite child -- and our kids know it.

Jealous sibling

"Put the baby to sleep," my four-year-old frequently tells me. My 6-year-old has a different tactic. He picks up a doll, cradles it like a baby, then smashes it face first on the ground. Ironically, the 6-year-old -- who has special needs -- is the one we really favor, at least according to my daughters, who are 9 and 11. In short, in my house, none of my children thinks he (or she) is getting as much attention as he (or she) deserves.

In more houses than you might think, however, parents are playing favorites -- and they're not ashamed to admit it. A recent study conducted by researchers at Cornell and Purdue Universities found that 70 percent of the mothers they surveyed were willing to name the child to whom they felt closest. And kids notice, too -- 92 percent of them could tell researchers which child their mothers preferred.

The effects of favoritism

What happens in families with a clear favorite child? It turns out that siblings who are aware of favoritism are more likely to be depressed in adulthood, says Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer.

And surprisingly, "it doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings," he says. "The less favored kids may have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling, and being the favored child brings resentment from one's siblings and the added weight of greater parental expectations."

And long before adulthood, you can see the signs of sibling rivalry in your children.

Stop the cycle

How can you stop playing favorites with your kids? Well, the first step is admitting that you do so. In our house, my special needs son has necessarily received a large share of our time and attention. And while I truly don't think I have a favored child, I do know that my 4-year-old has been sorely neglected thanks to his place in the lineup and his blessedly neurotypical brain.

I know this because the 4-year-old not only refused to poop in the toilet -- he would actually draw elaborate works of art on the walls. With his feces. This was a clear sign that something in my parenting strategy was not working.

quotation mark open A major key to avoiding favoritism: spending one-on-one time with all your kids -- even the ones you don't think "need" your time or attention.quotation mark close

To remedy the situation, we have become more deliberate about spending alone time with this child. We are re-learning to focus on his needs, to hang out with him without his siblings, to recognize him as the amazing little individual he is. No joke: within days of giving this child dedicated attention, he was toilet trained. Even better is the fact that he's actually a really cool kid, and it's totally fun to spend time with him.

This summer, three of his siblings are away, so he's the big brother to our 1-year-old. As the oldest kid in the house, he's running the roost -- and loving it. And now that we are more cognizant of our tendency to overlook him, we can make a point of spending time just with him even when his siblings return.

That's a major key to avoiding favoritism: spending one-on-one time with all your kids -- even the ones you don't think "need" your time or attention. In particular, if you find yourself behaving more harshly with one child, it's a sign you need to reconnect. Make a point of focusing on that child for at least half an hour a day for week, and see if she loses her bothersome habits.What you said

Tell us: Do you think you play favorites? Do your kids think you play favorites? What are you doing about it?

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