Is It Bad to Have a Favorite Child? Because I Definitely Do

favorite child

“I feel terrible for even thinking it, but the truth is that out of my two children, I have a favorite. I love them both equally, of course, but I just enjoy spending time with my eldest more than my younger child. Am I a terrible person?”

There, you’ve admitted it—you really do have a favorite child. Despite the parent shaming that’s likely to follow if you share this with others, the fact is that most parents have a favorite child. So you can rest assured that this is actually a very common and totally “normal” experience. Research confirms it: In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, 75 percent of mothers admitted to feeling closer to one child (and 70 percent of fathers said the same).

Of course, in the old parenting handbook, the unspoken rule is to treat all of your children the same. Yet, parents may find themselves favoring one child for several reasons. Birth order is commonly found to be an important reason older and younger children might have special status with Mom or Dad (the “middle child syndrome” may be a thing after all). Gender and stages of development are also common factors (it’s easy to prefer your sweet 6-year-old to your moody teenager, for example).

Other factors that contribute to parents having a favorite child are related to the parents’ personality, experiences and relationships. Our children reflect parts of our personality back to us (whether good or bad). It’s no surprise that parents find it more satisfying to spend time with a child who makes them feel more successful as a parent. The power of strong family ties can be an important factor too. Some children may remind a parent of a special person in their life when they were growing up, like a deceased parent or a favorite aunt.

Just as families are complex and constantly shifting and evolving, the same can be said for having a favorite child. There is often a fluid nature to this concept. A parent’s favorite child might change (often depending on who is behaving the best). Some parents might even rotate their choice of favorite child to fit the needs of the family and foster healthy, normal competitiveness. (There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids that parental approval is based on good behavior…as long as it’s done mindfully.)

Whatever the reason, if you’re a parent dealing with feelings of denial or guilt because you have a favorite child (which are both totally common reactions, by the way), let yourself off the hook. It’s important to recognize the difference in preferring to spend time with your favorite child and having love for all of your children. Favoritism exists to some degree in every family and it’s normal.

But what happens when no one is talking about the elephant in the room (e.g., “Mom has a favorite and it is not me”)? The perception (or reality) of parental favoritism that is experienced by siblings can have serious and negative consequences within the family, including sibling rivalry, high levels of family conflict, low self-esteem, teen substance abuse and increased rates of depression and anxiety. Children of all ages are keenly aware when their parent is not as attentive and available because of a favored sibling. And the fallout from perceived favoritism can be long-lasting, having repercussions that could last into adulthood. If the perception of favoritism is causing negative consequences in your family, it’s time to seek professional help.

But having a preferred child doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, recognizing that you have a favorite can help you to have a better relationship with all of your children. It’s a great opportunity to appreciate the special things that you like in each one of them, and it can help you take the extra effort to spend time with everyone.

If, however, you find yourself giving one of your children an extra dose of “like” on top of a huge dose of love, give yourself a pat on the back for being a good parent and let yourself off the hook. You’re only human.

Carlin Barnes, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist and coauthor with Dr. Marketa Wills of Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends.

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