NPR : Tell Me More

Parents Playing Favorites ... Inevitable?

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When it comes to favoring one child over another, most parents will fervently deny that they do it, while others say it's inevitable. Here's what Tell Me More's parenting panel says about the issue.

Jeffrey Kluger is the author of Time's recent cover story "Playing Favorites" and the book The Sibling Effect.

"Favoritism can be so heavily driven by birth order. Parents are driven by — now this is all genetic and unconscious, by the way — but they are driven by an impulse that corporations understand well, which is called sunk costs. By the time your second child comes along, you've had one or two or more years of investing all of your time, all of your energy, all of your money, lots of calories into raising a child. That [first] child is the furthest along the assembly line to a viable adulthood and leaving the family's genes behind. So that child is the one who will, by nature, be favored. The last born often does a very good job of counterbalancing that by learning what are called low power skills. You're the smallest one in the playroom, so you obviously don't have any high-power skills as a way of defending yourself. So you learn to charm and disarm. You learn humor. You learn intuition. All of these work another kind of power on parents.

"The mere act of making the effort to conceal favoritism serves two functions. First of all it, it allows children a certain plausible deniability. You know, even if you know the No. 3 child or the No. 4 or the No. 1 child is the favorite, if Mom and Dad never actually say it out loud, when you're feeling insecure, you can continue to tell yourself, 'Well, they say they have no favorite, so I'm going to believe them. Moreover ... the mere act of making the effort to conceal the truth is in itself the act of love, and children perceive that."

Shawn Bean is the father of two boys. He's also an executive editor at Parenting magazine, and he recently wrote about child favoritism for the magazine.

"The favorite kid is typically the one that makes the parent feels the most needed — whether they have learning disabilities or they need extra emotional support or they just are more clingy.

"I do think there is emotional damage that could be inflicted [by revealing who the favorite child is]. So I think best we can, I think it's probably important to keep that information under lock and key."

Jolene Ivey is the mother of five boys. She's a regular Tell Me More contributor and a Maryland state legislator.

"I think that the problem is that they [sons] all think that my No. 2 son is my favorite. And for a while, I played into it because I thought it was kind of funny. And now it's just family lore — David's my favorite. But in real life, although each of them is my favorite sometimes, maybe David's my favorite more often. But today, Julian is my favorite. Julian is my favorite because the other day, he said, 'Mom, you and Dad are so different, but you parent as one. And if people were all raised by parents like you guys, there would be fewer screwed-up people in the world.'

"I believe that I know who my husband's favorite is, but he would never admit it. And it might be harder to tell, to watch him because he tries very hard to give even attention to everyone. I do too, and I can't really tell you exactly why the kids have chosen one of the kids as my favorite. I do think that that particular child was very difficult to birth. I mean, it was extremely painful. And I think when you work that hard for something, maybe you do value it more."


Tell Me More also reached out to NPR listeners via Facebook for their takes on the issue. More than 2,000 responses poured in.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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