Parenting’s dreaded F-word: favoritism

Claire McCarthy, MD

Dr. Claire is enjoying a well-deserved summer vacation, so we are sharing a previous blog she wrote on a timeless topic: favoritism and parenting.

As if there weren’t enough for moms to feel worried and guilty about, there’s an article in USAToday.com saying that children who felt like their mother favored a sibling over them can have emotional problems well into adulthood.

Yikes.

I love each one of my five kids desperately—whether or not each knows that on a day-to-day basis is an open question. With full-time jobs, and the household chores involved in raising five kids, my husband and I are lucky if we get to pee, let alone spend quality time with each child every day.

And while we love each child, the 4-year-old gets the most physical attention since Liam can’t yet take care of himself—and the 17-year-old, Zack, gets attention since his competitive swimming takes him (and me) all over New England. Oh, and we spent all fall working on college applications with him. Maybe I should just start saving up for therapy for the other three now.

Joking aside, this can be a real issue in many families. What makes it particularly tough is that it’s all about perceptions. You may indeed love each of your children equally, but that doesn’t guarantee that your children will see it that way. And to a child, even a little bit of extra time or a few extra smiles given to a sibling can feel like favoritism. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some suggestions I use with parents in my practice:

Be honest with yourself. Do an inventory of your feelings—and your actions. Let’s face it: some kids are easier to love. The one who is a good student, and helps out around the house, is likely to get more positive attention than the confrontational one who lies about finishing her homework and never picks up after herself. Temperament can play into it as well; you may simply get along more easily with one child than another. But both are your children. I don’t have any easy solutions to the problem, but being aware of it is the only place to start. If, when you do this inventory, you find you have strong negative feelings toward one of your children,  talk to your pediatrician about finding a therapist to help both you and your child deal with these feelings.

Establish a culture of fairness. Make a calendar of chores; rotate the ones that are less pleasant. Set up rotations too for things that kids tend to fight over, like favored seating in the car or on the couch, or who picks the TV show or the music. Have ground rules for how people treat each other (no name-calling, respecting each other’s property, taking turns with toys, etc). It will help reassure your children that everyone’s equal in the family.

Touch base with each child every day. It may not be much some days, but something as simple as curling up in bed for a few minutes at bedtime for snuggling, or sitting down next to your teenager on the couch while they do what they can to ignore you, can make a difference. Ask about their day (specific questions work better than general ones), admire schoolwork and artwork, give hugs.

Explain. It’s a simple truth that some kids in the family demand more time and energy than others, because of physical or emotional needs. Explain this to the others (be specific—“Joe is going through a really hard time at school right now, and I need to help him with his homework every night” works better than “Joe needs me more.”) The others might not understand, but it’s worth a shot, especially if you can point to a time when you gave them more attention.

Listen. Kids decide what makes them feel valued, not you. I devote a lot of time and energy to my 12-year-old, Elsa. So I was confused when Elsa said I didn’t pay enough attention to her and that I favored her 9-year-old sister, Natasha. It was especially confusing because I felt like I was hardly paying any attention to Natasha—she  is so independent and capable that she’s the one I’m most likely to forget about. It took me a while to understand that since much of the time with Elsa was spent arguing or struggling with her over tough homework problems, it actually counted as a negative in her attention bookkeeping. She wanted positive attention—like the brief positive attention Natasha gets. Ask your child what it is he needs or wants from you; the answers may surprise you.

Remember that things can even up over time. To everything there is a season, and parenthood is no different. There will be times in your parenting when one child swallows up all the time—or when you don’t have any time for anyone. But you don’t have to get it all right, or make it all come out even, every day. You need find ways to show that you love each child every day, but you’re allowed to parent them differently at different times and stages of their lives. That’s how life works. Take a deep breath, and be gentle with yourself.

How have you divided your attention between your children? What strategies work in your family for helping each child feel like they’re getting enough – and the right kind – of your attention?