Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it parents sometimes play favorites with their children?

Ever since I was a child, it always seemed that my mom liked my younger sister better than me. Now as adults, this continues to be the case, and it has caused conflict in my family years. The saddest part is that this has alienated me from my mother and prevented me from being as close to my sister as I might have been.

A: It almost goes without saying that one of the most challenging aspects of parenting more than one child is the ability to maintain a level playing field among siblings. And although most parents do their best to avoid playing favorites, sometimes it does happen. When our parents appear to favor one sibling, it can result in a great deal of personal anguish and may impact our sense of self throughout our adult lives and subsequent social relationships.

At times, parents may be unaware that their behavior is showing preference to one child. Other times, the preference is explicit and purposeful. Both scenarios may inflict harm – not only to the child who is not favored (in terms of lowered self-esteem and confidence) – but also to the favored child (in terms of developing an over-inflated ego and self-centered personality). Playing favorites among siblings has a destructive impact on their ability to bond with one another, as they are more likely to view each other as adversaries rather than companions.

The reasons for parental favoritism are many. At times, parents may favor one sex (with males holding the preferred status, on average). When parents have both a son and daughter, it’s not uncommon for the son to receive preferential treatment (later curfews, greater independence/privileges at earlier ages, fewer household responsibilities, etc.). But we must be cautious about how gender treatment translates into differences in value. While it’s true that some parents prefer sons, it is also true that, in some cases, daughters are more restricted out of a parent’s sincere intent to “protect” them (precisely because they are viewed as fragile/precious). While one could easily make an argument about the inherent sexism involved, the motive is not one of intentional devaluation.

Other times, it may appear that one child is favored due to differences in parental expectations (along gender lines or birth order). When my son was 5, I had a neighbor named Mary with two children – Emma (5) and Jake (4). We spent long afternoons together while the children played. I was struck by the vivid differences in Mary’s parenting of Emma versus Jake. While we prepared lunch, the children were expected to clean up their toys before eating. If Emma popped in to ask if lunch was ready, Mary would respond to her in a strict tone questioning whether or not their room had been cleaned. However, when Jake popped in with the same question, Mary would reply to him with smiles and a patient, “soon honey, soon.” When I pointed this out, she explained that she expected more responsibility from Emma because she was the eldest. And while her intent was not one of value, it was clear that Emma had internalized hard feelings toward herself, mother and brother.

In this example, Mary was conscious of her behavior – however, this is not always the case. At times, our parenting may unconsciously reflect the same family dynamics that existed in our own homes as children. My friend, Jane, grew up as the middle sibling. As a child, she always felt a loss of affection, because her mother favored her younger brother and father favored her older sister. Once married, Jane mothered three children of her own (in exactly the same sex and birth order as her own siblings)! I frequently witnessed Jane’s preferential treatment toward her middle daughter. When questioned, Jane pondered for a moment and replied, “I guess I just want to make sure that Susie doesn’t go through what I did as a child.” So, while Jane was insuring against making the same mistakes as her own parents, she was making all new ones!

In order to prevent sibling rivalry, it is essential that parents remain mindful of the verbal and non-verbal ways they relate to their children. Often, it is the subtle, unspoken gestures/expressions that resonate most deeply. Express rules, expectations and affection equally and you will have laid the foundation for well adjusted children that will grow into secure, confident adults who value rather than resent their family ties.