Every parent has heard the refrain “That’s not fair!” countless times. Most often, this common complaint comes up with respect to how one sibling is being treated in comparison to another. As a mother of triplets I am often juggling my time and energy as it relates to each of my children, who require similar levels of involvement from me. When I hear any of my children suggest they’ve gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to my time and attention, I immediately ask myself: Am I playing favorites? Or perhaps more importantly, Do my kids have legitimate reasons to think I am?
Favoritism is an affront to the dignity of each child and carries the potential to cause lifelong hurts for everyone involved, both the favored child and the one left wanting. This is because favoritism sets up comparison and competition in the environment where children are meant to feel most safe, accepted, and unconditionally loved—within the family. A child who is favored is put in an inappropriate position of authority and saddled with the pressure to maintain favor. A child who is passed over is left to question their value and struggle to prove their worth to themselves and those around them. Relationships suffer all around, between parents and children as well as siblings. Here are some things to think about when considering whether you might be playing favorites.
What is Favoritism?
Addressing favoritism can be tricky because it’s not always easy to identify. Parents who allow younger siblings privileges denied to older siblings may be accused of favoritism, but they may actually be exercising discernment by recognizing that different children require different types of parenting. How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from parenting the individual child to favoring inappropriately?
Treating your children differently in order to accommodate their individual needs and personalities is not favoritism, it’s good parenting. It is not realistic to treat each child exactly the same, nor is it helpful. But if you find yourself treating your children differently to accommodate your own preferences or needs, or to satisfy a frustration or grudge, you’re flirting with favoritism. And you can rest assured that your children are very aware of it.
What Does Favoritism Look Like?
Even with a clear definition, it can still be difficult to identify if you’re the one playing favorites. You may not recognize you treat your kids differently, or may feel that it’s appropriate for the situation. So what do you look for? Two red flags include comparison and sibling rivalry. If you frequently compare your children, you are in danger of playing favorites. Phrases like “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” or “I can always rely on your brother to do his chores—I wish I could do the same with you” set kids up as opponents and competitors, placing you in the role of referee. If you consistently find yourself designating a winner, undoubtedly you have a losing child getting the message that they don’t make the cut.
Sibling rivalry is another potential sign of favoritism. There are many causes of tension between siblings, so the presence of rivalry is by no means a slam dunk diagnosis of favoritism. But if kids believe they are opponents competing for your approval, bitterness and conflict will quickly follow. If you see rising tension between your children, be courageous enough to ask yourself if you may be feeding the flame.
How To Address a Current Problem
If your child comes to you complaining that you are playing favorites, the most important thing to do is listen. Don’t dismiss their concerns or get defensive; listen to their feelings and try to see from their point of view. Kids may not always understand a parent’s reasons for what they do, nor can they be expected to. But if you have a child who consistently feels marginalized or passed over, they need to know you are willing to hear them.
If you do some soul searching and find that you really have been playing favorites, bravo to you for being willing to face an unpleasant reality. Recognizing the problem is the first step to remedying it. Ask your child for forgiveness and solicit their help in keeping you accountable to change. Help from a spouse or close friend can be invaluable as well—the more aware you are of the unbalanced treatment, the more prepared you will be to make more equitable choices moving forward. Look for triggers that tempt you to treat one child differently than the other and seek to align your treatment with each child’s needs in the moment. The hard work will be worth the results.
Have you ever felt marginalized by someone picking favorites over you? How did it feel?