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When parents play favourites



As a parent you eventually learn to shore yourself against those uncomfortable questions from your offspring, but not all uncomfortable questions are created equally, and right up there with 'Mummy, where did I come from?' is the question: 'Am I your favourite?'

Jen and childrenI can't stress the anxiety this can cause in an unguarded moment. Especially when said offspring just won't accept a diplomatic 'You're both my favourites' for an answer.

When they invariably push me for more I tell my children that it's biologically impossible for a mother to love one child more than another (note to self to sit them in front of Sophie's Choice when they're old enough).

But it seems I may have been a little disingenuous.

Last week, US research by the University of California published in the prestigious Journal of Family Psychology found that 70 per cent of mothers admitted to favouring one child over another.

The article hit a nerve. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and mulled over its every detail. Like its participants, we, too, were a family of two parents and two children, where the children were born within four years of each other. So, on paper, anyway, the article seemed to have been written for us.

I wasn't the only one who thought this, as I discovered while visiting my parents. As we all chatted under the pergola, and the children played noisily in the garden, Dad turned to me and asked me point blank, 'Well, do you have a favourite?'

Of course, I was taken aback (although after 47 years, you'd have thought that I would have been ready for Dad's impromptu interrogation). After exchanging glances with my husband, I tried my best to explain that this was impossible due to the fact that I wanted to become a mother so badly that I was just so grateful to have been given the opportunity twice.


"One of Dad's clearest memories is of his mother saying to him: 'If your brother had lived, you would never have been born.'"


Dad, however, wouldn't be silenced. 'Come on,' he baited. 'Surely, you love (my eldest son) more because he is number one?'

When it comes to my 82-year-old father it doesn't take a psychologist to work out that there was more to his question than met the ear. Born into what was then Communist Yugoslavia, Dad was the youngest son to parents who were brought together in what was essentially an arranged marriage.

There was never enough food to go around and any spare attention went to his older brother who was sickly for much of his childhood. Add to this the fact that his parents had lost a child some years before having him and the picture of a pretty tough childhood begins to emerge.

One of Dad's clearest memories is of his mother saying to him: 'If your brother had lived, you would never have been born.'

So it was no surprise that the question still burned for him all these years later — long after he'd left Yugoslavia and long after he'd lost both his parents and his only sibling.

Dad also illustrates what science has known for some time, that there is lasting impact on children who become stuck in a family dynamic in which they're always second best (interestingly, it's no better for the child who 'can do no wrong').

It's enough to make a parent feel queasy, but the question still remained — do I actually favour one child over another?

Unfortunately, sometimes, I think I do.

There are times when the youngest gets away with murder while the eldest is quickly admonished for his misbehaviour. I've always put this down to the fact that he's older and, in my mind, therefore should know better. But once I've calmed down I always — always — make sure we talk through what just transpired, and that he understands that while I may seem harder on him I'm also proud of the person he's turning out to be.

And perhaps the fact that I check myself each time it happens tells me what I want to know. I wasn't joking when I said I felt blessed twice over with my children. Despite what challenges we face, at the end of the day they're both my favourite people (funnily enough, especially when they're asleep).

And when the time comes I'll know that I've done a relatively good job of this parenting business if they believe that, too.


Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, parenting



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Existing comments

The 'favourite' question is a minefield - it is a lot easier with a boy and a girl 'you're my favourite boy/girl' seems to work for a while. I do think as children grow and become their own person we develop different relationships with them as individuals. Just as we enjoy different traits in friends, our children have unique personalities and we connect with them on different levels.

Deb B | 21 April 2016  

Hmmm... always had a suspicion there was more to the Cain and Abel story. Maybe a warning to parents about favouritism breeding resentment?

Anne P | 22 April 2016  

I think that it changes. Circumstance, the age of the children, your own pressured life ... The whining 3 year old vs the engaging 7 year old turns 8 years later into the engaging 11 year old vs the grunting 15 year old. It changes.

ErikH | 22 April 2016  

Surely the only answer is to love, favour, treat each according to his or her needs which both emotional and material will vary from occasion to occasion. I was the eldest of five children. I have no memory of the question entering my mind. Love was abundant; money was not. I always assumed we were treated differently but equally. I treasure each of my sons and each of my grandchildren for who they are. My attention might vary from time to time according to the needs of the individual person. Surely that's how it should be.

Sheelah | 22 April 2016  

My experience as the mother of four girls in their forties is that it depends on the particular situation which is my favorite. In one situation I will call on one because of her ability to empathise, in another because of her common sense, sometimes practicality, sometimes kinkyness. It is only since getting to know my sons-in-law that I have thought it would have been nice to have a son. We love them all, but in different ways and for different attributes.

Margaret McDonald | 24 April 2016  

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