7: Is parental favoritism real?

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I read this interesting article a while ago about The lifelong effects of the favorite child, also called parental differential treatment (PDT). I find this a fascinating topic, both from the perspective of being a (twin) sibling myself, and also from the perspective of a parent (which I am not, but many of you are, and I have been watching interactions between parents and children as an outside observer). 

The article claims that parental favoritism is surprisingly common and occurs in up to 65% of families (in the United States). Without having read the studies, I do believe that favoritism can affect mental health. I mean, it can affect relationships in general but is surely more impactful in children when favoritism occurs within the family structure.

I’d be interested to know how exactly favoritism was “measured” in these studies, other than parents outright saying that they liked one child more than the other (which I cannot imagine happened very often, although maybe some parents are brave enough to admit it). I think this can be a very fluid, always-changing dynamic, too. Perception can be very subjective, and not everyone in the family will experience a situation in the same way. 

I think that real favoritism has to have a component of repetition, a certain preferential treatment that occurs over and over again and is “recognizable” to an outsider. I think “situational” favoritism is much more common, but also potentially less harmful because aren’t all and any interactions with others potentially a sort of momentary favoritism?1

While I don’t believe that my parents had favorites, I remember there was a time during our early teen years, when my sister perceived that I was the ‘favorite child’. I do not believe that this is true, but perception is subjective. 

Personality-wise, I was a much more agreeable, rule-following, non-confrontational child and didn’t test boundaries as much as my sister did. I can see in retrospect how she might have felt more reprimanded, even though I didn’t do anything intentionally to get on my parents’ good side or make her look bad on purpose. We were (are!) just very different people. 

Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in the US is quoted in the article, saying that “preferential treatment may begin for parents due to one child being easier to parent, or they may relate to that child more, see similarities between them and the child”. That makes so much sense to me. It’s not hard to fathom why favoritism could occur even if parents are adamant about loving their children equally. On a theoretical level, this might often be true, but on a daily interactive kind of level, it feels very human to me to interact differently with children who have different personalities. 

I find this particularly interesting in my situation with my sister being the same age. It’s clear that even though we’re (fraternal) twins and were raised together in supposedly the same environment, we just turned out to have very different personalities. Of course, this can impact the family dynamic.

So the question arises: Is favoritism real when someone perceives it as such, or does favoritism have to be intentional? I am leaning towards the former because you can experience hurt, even if it was not intended.

At the same time, I do not believe that it necessarily causes long-term harm. I don’t think my sister has been traumatized by the time when she perceived me to be the ‘favorite child’, and she’d probably confirm this if I asked her. She’s a very well-adjusted adult with hardly any emotional issues. We are both close to our parents and to each other.

Finally, I think it’s almost impossible to treat siblings – or be treated as a sibling – completely equally,  nor is it desirable. I do think everyone wants to – and should – be treated as an individual. 

Have you experienced favoritism in your family or among your siblings? As a parent, are you aware or actively thinking about favoritism in your parenting approach?

  1. One thing that wasn’t considered in the article but I contemplated while thinking about all this: What is the reason for children preferring one parent over the other at times? ↩︎
  1. Ughhh so interesting. I have not (yet) read the referred article.
    But remember (not too long ago) that I heard that some people were not their parent’s favorite and I was dumbstruck. It had never occurred to me that parents could or would have favorites.
    I would like to think that my parents didn’t. And I am rather sure my parents would confirm. However we are all different and I am sure parenting us was different with everyone. Not only because of different characters but also because with the first child everything is new and with the last one parents are practiced in raising kids.

    But then reading your arguments above it could be perceived as being favored or not.
    I think this is a tough topic. And honestly I don’t want to know if my parents had favorites.

    Since I am not a parent I can’t say much more to that.

    1. I agree with you, Tobia, that parenting kids with different personalities can falsely seem like parents have favorites, when in fact it’s just an expression of individual relationships. It’s an interesting, but also very “grey-ish” topic for sure.

  2. This is a very interesting topic. It hits me right in the feels. My parents played favorites. Big time. They’d never openly admit it, but it was very clear in how they treated us/treat us. I’m one of 5. I have 2 olders sister and 2 younger brothers. My next youngest brother is the first born son, and he could do no wrong in our family. My folks favored the first born son and my older sister, because they were both considered the smartest kids in the family. I have a lot of examples. The most obvious was when my brothers and I participated in a fundraiser selling candy bars for our school. My sisters were in high school. My mom suggested that we pool our sales together in order to win the prize. I was the oldest one of the three of us in the school, but she selected my brother Pat to take credit for the sales. She assured me it wouldn’t matter – we would share the prize which was a boom box, or a portable stereo radio. I was upset, but if I complained I was scoded for whining about whether or not things were fair. When we won, the prize ended up my brother’s property. I was told that I didn’t really need it anyway by my mom. It was maddening.

    I make an effort to not play favorites. I think my kids still think that I do, well – our oldest I think feels that way, but what he is referring to is that the other kids have typically made better choices and therefore not been ‘dealt’ with in the same way. I enjoy all of our kids and I see their strengths. Mini and I enjoy a lot of the same things, like shopping, so I think sometimes the others think she’s my favorite. I don’t see it that way.

    1. I am so sorry, Ernie, that you experiences favoritism in your family and that as the middle child, you were treated less favorably than your siblings. This must have been tough and I can see how that affected you to this day.

      I don’t think it’s possible to treat everyone equally but I think the trick is to make sure nobody feels “neglected/treated unfairly”.

  3. This is complicated. I couldn’t tell you which is my favorite stepson anymore than I could tell you which is my favorite kidney – they are a pair. And I’m the stepmom – if you got my husband or their mother and asked which is the favorite I can’t imagine either of them saying one over the other. So what you said, how on earth does this get measured?

    From the kids’ side, I know that if one thinks that his brother was treated better, they will call it out. One kid isn’t very social so we’re always pushing him to do more things with his friends. The other kid has no problem with that so we’re setting limits like “no you cannot have your friends over four nights in a row”. So the social kid might look back and say “they were always wanting my brother to have his friends over but they always gave me a hard time about it.”

    So I have no answer but I’m interested in the question.

    1. I think it’s a tricky situation especially when siblings are very different and need different things. What might just be “responding to different needs” can look like favoritism sometimes, but I think the trick is to make every child feel loved.

  4. I do not think I have a favorite child— I love them all equally. BUT Harry is home is home for lunch today, so I asked him if HE thinks we have favorites, and he said without hesitation that Minnie and Cooper are the favorites. Sooooo, I used I need to work on my feelings being expressed in actions **yikes**

    1. Uff. That must have been hard to hear from Harry… but I think he might just feel this way because Cooper and Minnie are younger and therefore get more attention in a way? Interesting though how much it depends on “perception”, right? I hope you don’t question your parenting approach now. I think you’re doing an amazing job.

  5. This one is complicated. I would say my parents do have a favorite child (my youngest sister) but my parents would adamantly say that is not the case. Abby is the baby of the family so she got the most 2-on-1 attention from them. Us other 4 siblings were all fairly evening spaced over 10 years so no one had a larger share of our parents attention or it ebbed and flowed more. Overall it doesn’t bother or affect me, though. I’m secure in my parents love for me. I know we are all so very different and required different things. I would say I was the easiest to parent because I was extremely driven and a huge rule follower. My other siblings pushed boundaries more and were less interested in school/less focused.

    As a parent, I can’t say I have a favorite but right now, one child challenges me way more than the other because of his age. Toddlers are just plain exhausting and it’s one of my absolutely least favorite stages of parenting. So I prefer parenting a kindergartener but that doesn’t mean I like one child more than the other. I just like one stage of parenting more. Eventually they will be on more even footing, though. I can see how a parent is drawn to a child that is more like them, though. It’s too early to say who might be more similar to me, though.

    1. I can see how it can be perceived that the baby of the family is favorited/gets the most attention, especially from the perspective of older siblings, but I think the most important thing you said in your comment was “I’m secure in my parents’ love for me”. That is the most important thing!

      I think you also said something profound that certain ages and challenges that come with them can “influence” the parenting approach and therefore the way one might interact with their children.

  6. Based on absolutely nothing but my own experience, I would guess that favoritism is purely a matter of perception. It seems impossible that most parents would truly have a favorite, although I could see that they might prefer interacting with one child over another, or — as the quote you included mentioned — with a child that is simply “easier,” or one who has more in common with the parent. And while I can’t speak to whether favoritism causes longterm harm, it certainly has longterm effects. I think it influences how people see themselves, their relationships with their parents and siblings, and the way they approach parenting at the very least. Even though I am sure my parents would say without hesitation that they never had a favorite child, I would say I was the favorite child while growing up and my brother is the favorite child as an adult. Feeling that I am no longer the favorite — whether true or not — has really impacted my feelings of self-worth. But this idea of favoritism is only my perception, and I’m guessing my parents would say that they have always interacted with each of us based on our needs and behaviors and distinct personalities.

    Such an interesting topic! I bypassed this issue myself by only having one child. She is most definitely the favorite and we all know it. :-)

    1. I agree with you that in most cases favoritism comes down to perception and that maybe “theoretically” parents don’t treat their kids differently. The problem is, how do you remedy that perception if it affects you as a child or later on as an adult?
      Do you think your brother was affected by it the same way that you’re now?

  7. What a fascinating topic and the timing is unbelievable. Just this morning, on our walk to school, I made a comment as I waved goodbye to my husband and son: “Bye to my favourite two boys in the world.” Then my daughter and I discussed how, growing up, my mom would often say “You’re my favourite…youngest daughter.” That said, I do think my parents played favourite and I think I was that favourite. I think because I was so much younger I got away with a lot more, but I’ve also been more active in their lives in the later years. While they LOVE us all, I think they prefer BEING with me more than my other siblings.

    My daughter definitely thinks our son is the family favourite. He is the “baby” and just a much easier personality, so it’s tricky. She does tend to get reprimanded more but that’s because she tends to do more things that require reprimanding. SO TOUGH. I love my kids equally, but differently, if that makes sense? One is definitely easier to parent and so I can see that being viewed as favouritism. I try so hard to balance things out but, like Suzanne said, a lot of it boils down to perception.

    I even talked to my therapist about favourtism today! So such a timely post <3

    1. You made an interesting comment, Elisabeth, and that is that favoritism doesn’t necessarily equates with the love that parents have for their children. You said that your parents love you and your siblings but prefer being with you. That’s an interesting observation, right?
      I think to some extent it really has to do with the compatibility of personalities.

  8. My sister was and is the preferred child. She was needier than I was when we were younger, so while I went ahead and got good grades and parented myself, she required hand-holding to do anything. She was painfully shy and quiet and needed so much help, but it also meant my parents spent a lot more time parenting her. I was self-sufficient, I guess, but also never really had my parents’ attention. Does that mean she was the favorite? I don’t know, but I perceived it as such.

    Now my sister lives with my mom and my mom hasn’t visited me in years. They spend way more time together and even when I try to communicate with them, it’s all inside jokes between them. My mom has not called me on my birthday in years, signs her cards to me with her first name, and rarely reaches out to me if I don’t initiate the first contact. Does that mean my sister is honestly my mom’s favorite? I don’t know, but I definitely perceive it that way.

    And it has had lifelong consequences, for sure. I rarely see my family of birth. I feel like I am always less than everyone else and less important. My husband sees it as my sister is still not self-sufficient and my mom spends time with her because my sister needs it more than I do, but I see it as my mom never prioritizes spending time with me.

    Ugh. Sorry about the rant. Maybe I should talk to a therapist about this. LOL.

    1. NGS – I’m so sorry this has been your experience. This is a very, very hard reality to live through and I want to give you a big ol’ hug and let you know you’re one of my favourite bloggers and you’re amazing.
      P.S. I’m in therapy now and it has been SOOOOO helpful, for what that’s worth.

    2. Oh Engie, your comment makes me really sad. I can see how your sister – being younger and needier, even into her adult life – has required more attention from your parents but I am so, so sad to learn that your mother makes no effort to have a close relationship with you. She hasn’t visited, she doesn’t call you on your birtdhay, and doesn’t really reach out to you. Wow. I don’t even know what to say. That is truly heartbreaking because you’re such an awesome person. Big hugs. I don’t know, a therapist might be helfpul.

      1. Ah, but your first line says it all. She’s OLDER by 3.5 years, but you’d never know it, would you? It’s a tough situation, but I’m confident that I’m loved by others, so at least I’m in a good place with that.

    3. This sound really rough. I have a relationship kind of like this with my sister (we are not very close), but I would be really upset if my mom were the same way. Blerg.

  9. So, so interesting!
    This is something we totally joke about with my siblings and my parents! My parents swear up and down they don’t have favorites, but my siblings all have their own opinion on who they think it is. I know my parents love us equally, but I do think they prefer the company of each of us for different activities. I also think some personalities are just generally easier to get along with.

    1. I think a lot comes down to compatible personalities. It’s interesting that siblings can be so different, right, but we usually only want to spend time with people that our personalities jive with.

  10. It’s interesting reading everyone’s thoughts on favoritism! It seems like favoritism occurs in lots of families, or at least is perceived that way. My daughter is definitely my favorite, but she’s an only child, so that’s easy. :) I have a brother with my mom, and 2 sisters (fraternal twins) with my father. I was raised with my brother, I met my sisters as an adult. So my experience growing up is just with my brother.
    My brother and my mom think alike, have a similar sense of humor, and he is a ‘mama’s boy’, he moved where she moved. I was more outgoing and wanted to do things with her more, and us both being female gave us that in common. When I had my daughter, that gave us more in common, more to talk about. I was interested in her blog (because I had one also), he was not. But he lived 3 blocks away from her and was involved in her life in a way that I was not, as I live far away.
    That’s a lot of blah blah blah. I don’t think my mom had a favorite child, just that she liked different things about both of us.
    My husband’s family though…his grandmother actively disliked some of her kids and let them know it. Called my MIL ugly, that kind of thing. Harsh.

    1. It does sounds like you and your brother both had your own, unique relationship with your mom and I think that’s very healthy.
      Hearing that your husband’s grandmother actively disliked some of her kids though is hard to hear.

  11. VERY interesting subject! You raise all the right questions- how in the world was this measured? I can say that I have one “easy” kid and one “difficult” kid, and it just so happens that the easy one is much more similar to me, so we understand each other well and get along better. Even so, I would never say (or even believe, privately) that I have a “favorite.” But now that you bring it up, I think I’ll ask my difficult kid if they ever feel that I play favorites. Maybe the answer will surprise me?

    1. I’d be curious to know if your “more difficult” kid thinks that you play favorites ;) (but I think it’s absolutely normal and human that we get along better with people/kids that are similar to us.

  12. This is so interesting. I agree very much that perceived favouritism can have similar effects to actual intentional favouritism. That said, I was absolutely NOT the favourite child growing up, mostly because I was a fairly dramatic and emotional child, as compared to my super even-keeled older brother. I cannot say that didn’t impact me, in fact I think it impacted me a lot as a child, and especially as a teenager. It also really impacted how I raised my children.
    I do not have a favourite child, and I just asked my younger son if he thought I did, and he said no, so whew. I do know some parents who full-on admit to favouritism.

    1. I think it’s odd to hear that parents full-on admit to favoritism and see nothing wrong with it. Generally, from all the comments here, I come to the conclusion that a lot of perceived favoritism comes down to compatibility of personalities. If you’re very different from your parent(s) and there’s more confrontation because of that, it can appear that another (quieter) sibling is preferred (as was your and my experience growing up), but I also don’t know what can be done about this. Also, I believe you can love equally but still have a favorite in terms of “interacting” with each other.

  13. Have you experienced favoritism in your family or among your siblings? I was an only child so no.
    As a parent, are you aware or actively thinking about favoritism in your parenting approach? As a childfree adult, this doesn’t apply.

    Still, even though my answers are kind of negative, this was an interesting post to me. I enjoy learning about what makes people tick.

    1. Not negative, Ally. I have the same answer to those questions, but still enjoy the conversation and thinking about this :)

  14. I am single child so I don’t know what feels from the receiving end. As parent, I can’t tell if I favor one kid vs the other. I do give them different care/attention, different time, different amount, because as you said they are different and need different kind of attention. currently, I dedicate more time with the little one because I know she needs it, but things always evolve quickly in parenting so I might have to physically be more with the little one but mentally dedicate more time for the older girl as challenges for teenagers will be new to me.

    1. I think it’s a great point, Coco: responding to the individual needs of each child is imperative and that can shift with time.

  15. Wow, this is so interesting… I can say that I was always spoiled more than my brother (7 years older than me). For me own kids, I try to be as neutral as possible. I am sure that, as impartial as we try to be, one or both kids will talk about us in therapy one day. That’s what you do, right? lol Anyway, most days, we just do our best. But for example, if I go to a play with L, then I also want to do something with R next week.

    1. I think you’re right that it’s almost impossible to treat people/kids 100% equally, but if you can manage to keep things fair and also respond to each kid’s individual needs then you’re doing a great job.

  16. This is interesting. I agree with your theory about the ebb and flow of “favoritism.” Sometimes one of my kids is driving me crazy and the other one is less so. Then it switches. I do see more of myself in some ways with my older child and in other ways with my younger child. My younger child and I both practice martial arts at the same dojo so we work on that together. My daughter swims, which I used to do, so I am her go to on that. I will say I enjoy hanging out with my daughter when she is with her friends than my son when he is with his, but I think that is mostly because my son and his friends play a lot of video games and I could not be less interested in those…
    In my family of origin, I can imagine my sister thinks I’m the favored child. I am 7 years older and fit into a lot of culturally accepted boxes. She did not and was harder to please. She now lives in London and I think part of why she moved there originally was to get away from all of us. It was clear we were never the family she was hoping for. She also doesn’t have kids, and I do, and my parents live near me and spend a fair amount of time with them… When my sister lived literally across the street from me we saw each other only three or four times (independently of family gatherings) in three years. I guess what I’m describing is more a family member that doesn’t feel they fit in the family as easily as everyone else. I can imagine that sibling would not deem themselves the favorite.

    1. This was super-interesting for me to read about your sister and your family, because in family the situation is completely reversed (I moved across the ocean, no kids while my sister has a family, two kids and lives close to my parents), but I swear I didn’t move away because I wanted to get away… although in your sister’s situation I can totally see why you feel that way.
      Family dynamics can be hard sometimes.

  17. Wow, this is such an interesting topic.

    I’m the eldest by almost 3 years and growing up often thought my younger sister was the favourite. She has additional needs so my parents obviously needed to have more patience with her than they did with me. Also my sister was and still is very easy going and generous (making me look like the grouchy older sister when we were kids!
    As an adult I can see she needed my parents more (and still does).

    1. Do you still feel close to your parents? Or do you feel because of your sister’s needs, you were always a little bit more on the outside?

      1. As an adult I feel closer to them because I can understand my sister needed them more. As a child I didn’t have that understanding and there were times I would think she was the favourite.

  18. Such an interesting discussion. I’m one of four and we always joked that my youngest is tear was favoured (not having to do as many jobs etc). But I think my brother, who is the oldest (and only son) had more expectations on him and us girls had it a bit easier. Now my dad likes spending more time with my brother, but he still spends a lot of time with all of us so we are all still close and I would say, secure in our parents love. My girls say that my son, who is the youngest, gets away with more. It is hard because he has ADHD so he actually got into a lot more trouble than the girls, but our expectations also needed to be a bit lower because he does have more difficulty in particular areas. It has also meant that he took up a bit more of our time because he needed more scaffolding. My middle child is most similar to me.

    1. I think age and personality differences are the biggest factors in (perceived) favoritism, although I am really happy to hear that you feel secure in your parents’ love for you and can recognize that just because your relationship might be different, it’s not better or worse.

  19. I’m sure no one will be surprised that I looked up measures of parental favoritism, and it’s really “perceived parental favoritism”, measured however the researchers want to measure it. So nothing standardized, of course. I wish that people would at least look at what others have done and try to replicate it, rather than just making up something new to measure the same concept. (Sorry, teaching concepts and measures and philosophy and theories this semester…and you’re getting the dregs of that. ;>)
    Oh, and my brother and I are only 14 months apart, and while I was like your sister and *thought* he was the favorite, I was mostly just being an annoying, sullen teen. :)

    1. I love that you looked into the research side of things, Anne. I am definitely interested to learn a little more about that and I figured it wasn’t really a “solid” scientific approach (which is also very hard to do for something that is really not easily “measurable”.

  20. Interesting and thought-provoking. I think it’s really easy to perceive favoritism. As the eldest child, I saw my siblings get away with things I never did, but I also see that I had the brunt of all the things my parents were trying to figure out as first-time parents, and by the time the others came along, they knew more about where to pick their battles. I can see the younger kids thinking I was the favorite since I got to have more freedom later on, but that’s really more a matter of me being older than them at the time.
    That said, my parents went out of their way to deny any were their favorites and didn’t seem to show favoritism overtly. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a parent outright tell a child they were less favored than their siblings, though, that would really hurt.

    1. I totally agree, Steve, that a lot comes down to age and personality… and being the eldest can have its advantages and disadvantages for sure ;)

  21. Wow, what an interesting and complex question and field of study. I would also want to know more about how the favoritism was measured.
    I was sitting with a friend’s sister in law at a wedding dinner, with the SIL’s little boy. I said he was really cute and she said “I know, he’s my favourite. And Tory is Mike’s”. My jaw dropped and I was like Maureen, you can’t say that! I haven’t been able to see how it played out since.
    I felt like my sister was the favourite a few times early on, mostly because I was just a weird kid and my mom didn’t really get me. I don’t have any lingering resentment over it.
    I agree with you that even unintended consequences can be serious. I think parents should be on guard against showing favoritism, because it can definitely impact long-term family relations, but it’s definitely impossible to treat siblings exactly equally. I feel pretty lucky that I had a boy and a girl, because it must be that much more difficult if you have the same gender. My son would often good-naturedly refer to himself as the ‘slightly dumber, somewhat more athletic one’ – different things were important to them, so he was never bitter about my daughter’s academic prowess and she was never envious of the attention he got for baseball (although she did once dramatically say “oh good, Angus is in the newspaper again, I was afraid that was all over!”)

    1. I think it’s rare, but still startling when someone so overtly admits to having a favorite child. Wow.
      I hope the kids don’t know that.
      I think perceived favoritism can really be situational and short-lived and in most cases might not have long-term affects, but I also think parents need to be really careful to treat their kids fairly. (I didn’t say equally, because I meant “fairly”… kids are different and a little fun competition (like between your kids) is normal, even expected.

  22. What an interesting discussion! And I love that this is coming from a non-parent. :)

    My brother believes wholeheartedly that I’m my mom’s favorite. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think she loves us equally, and we have vastly different relationships with her. I needed more from her growing up than my brother did AND I was the good kid who didn’t push boundaries, so I was definitely easier in that respect. And now we’re very close because I’m single and can spend more time with her. He’s married with two kids who are both heavily involved in sports, so his time is very limited.

    My brother freely admits that he has a favorite (his younger son) but that’s just because the younger one is not a teenager who is hormonal to the MAX, lol.

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