Do you play favourites with your kids?
Preferring one child over the rest: common practice or parenting calamity?

Do you have a favourite child? Of course you do! It’s the one who’s currently not nagging or needing a nappy change just as dinner’s starting.

It’s a quip, but for most parents, that’s actually pretty close to the truth. If you’re always monitoring yourself, wondering which child you’re closest to, which one your connection is strongest with, which one you – gasp! – prefer overall, take heart.

Despite some high-profile articles, books and blog posts recently, in which authors argue for the existence of favouritism, (see Jeffrey Kluger’s Time article “Playing Favorites” or one mom’s confession, “I think I love My Son a Little But More” on, your “favourite” can change several times an hour, day, or even every few months. Parents who show a consistent preference for one child are not the norm.

Read: "I have a favourite child"

An individual kind of love

“Sometimes what may appear to be favouritism is actually an appropriate allocation of attention and resources to a specific child based on the circumstances,” says Johannesburg-based counselling psychologist Jade Paterson.

“For example, when there is a new baby in the family, it is normal for a mother to become preoccupied with the newborn and this impacts on her emotional availability to the rest of the family. Or if one child in the family has special needs, it can become complicated and stressful for the whole family and sometimes it helps to seek professional assistance to help manage the impact on siblings.”

It’s also normal to love your kids differently, according to their different needs and personalities – and you can explain this to your children frankly. The day will come when they ask, “Mom, who do you love the most?”

You can say, “I love Mark because he’s Mark, I love Nomonde because she’s Nomonde. I can’t love Nomonde like Mark, because she’s not Mark. I love you all more than anything, and none of you can ever be replaced in my heart.”

It's a wavering thing

If you feel you have been particularly kind to Mark and mean to Nomonde over the past while, you might feel tempted to “make it up” to Nomonde to “even out the scores”.

Be wary of this, cautions Jade: “It could have negative consequences for your children’s relationships with their siblings and play them up against one another.” This style of parenting is also not reflective of an attunement to a specific child’s emotional needs, she adds.

You don’t have to always be aiming to treat each child completely equally, so loosen yourself from that bond. Children actually understand that some privileges are for older kids only, that special needs children may require extra attention, and so on.

Also read: I am special too

“It is not possible to treat children equally because each child is unique and should feel valued in their own individual right,” says Jade. “Sensitive parents recognise the uniqueness of the emotional worlds of their different children.

They are thoughtful about and respond to what their child needs in that moment, as opposed to engaging reactively or intrusively.”

Facing the truth

And now, let’s grasp the nettle. What if you really do prefer one child over another?

Keep it to yourself (at least until your children are adults). Even if your children suspect the truth, they can participate in the ruse and so experience the rejection or disappointment less strongly.

Next, investigate why you feel this way. Jade says, “Sometimes parents feel more of a connection to one of their children than the other.

If this is distressing for you or if you feel that it hinders the ‘unfavoured’ child’s emotional needs being adequately met, try to understand whether there is something complicating the attachment in this relationship or if there is tension in the family system that impacts your relationship with that child.”

Once you figure out the underlying reasons for your feelings, they are likely to lessen dramatically. “But they can be confusing to try and make sense of and parents may feel guilty,” says Jade. “Family therapy or parent-child psychotherapy may offer families insight into relationship difficulties.”

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