Dear Dr. Yael,
I am the favorite child in my family and it’s a hard place to be. My parents will always say, “Oh, this is our amazing son, Dr. So and So.” They tell everyone about my academic and financial accomplishments and about my wonderful family. Unfortunately, they do this in front of my siblings, some of whom struggle with financial or family issues. While I know this is not their intention, my parents are destroying my relationship with my siblings.
Why do parents do this?
My parents are children of Holocaust survivors and I know that they were each the favorite child of their parents. However, this type of favoritism breeds family hostility.
You are correct that having a favorite child can be detrimental to the other children in a family. In fact, research has shown that the perception of favoritism is one of the biggest factors in sibling rivalry. That being said, being in either position, favored or unfavored, is not easy or pleasant. All parents likely have a “favorite child”; however, it is imperative that they work on never showing it and on treating all their children equally. Developmental pediatricians have reported that behavioral problems in children often come from a child’s sense of not being the “favored” one.
Perhaps you can ask your parents that as a favor to their “favorite child” they can make more of an effort to treat you and your siblings equally, at least when your siblings are present.
As noted above, when a child feels that he/she is not preferred, he/she will often act out. This usually leads to parents liking these children even less and will cause the children to become needy, overly-attention seeking, and/or aggressive in order to get more of the parents’ attention. Sadly, this will likely cause the parents to like this child even less. Once this negative cycle has begun, it is very hard to stop. Parents will have to make a great effort to spend one-on-one time with that child and focus on anything positive he or she does to stop this cycle of negativity. I can tell you that with a lot of hard work and a lot of positivity, parents can change these situations.
Readers, please save yourselves a lot of stress and heartache and try very hard not to show any favoritism. Find something special about each of your children and, if you have a child you do not like as much, it is imperative that you work extra hard and spend extra time loving that child. Perhaps an early morning cuddle or a special nighttime ritual can be helpful. This one-on-one special time could be the first step to developing a relationship, as the child will be calm and easier to deal with. By the way, whether you actually favor a child is irrelevant; what matters is perceived favoritism. You must not show your children that you prefer one of them over the others. We never want a child to feel slighted.
Interestingly, Chazal talk about a situation in which two people need help unloading their donkeys. They tell us that you should assist the person whom you like less first. This tells us that we have to try harder with the child we find more challenging – it is that child who usually needs the most love. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in parenting. It is hard to love and compliment the child who presents with more chutzpah, who is less cooperative and gives you less nachas in school. However, it is precisely this child for whom we must take out a magnifying glass and focus on his or her positive attributes.
Remember, though, that all children require a lot of positive reinforcement and genuine specific and descriptive praise. Don’t get yourself in trouble by focusing only on the “unlovable” child. It is the wise parent who spends private time with each child every night – even if it’s only for five minutes. These five or ten minutes are the best investment you can make when it comes to parenting your children. It is the most precious commodity that you can offer them and the best way to build their self-esteem.
I remember a mother with a large family who attended one of my parenting workshops saying, “I don’t need more hands, I need more ears to truly listen and validate my children’s feelings and build their self-esteem.” Listening to children is the greatest gift we can give them and specific descriptive praise will ultimately yield healthy adults who can function well as spouses and parents.
Thank you for highlighting this issue and hatzlocha with helping your parents, in a loving and respectful manner, understand why “favoring” you in public can be very detrimental to your siblings and your relationship with them!