Favorite children are having a moment. (But then again, when you’re Mom or Dad’s favorite, you could argue that every moment is your moment.)
Last week, “Mom” actress Jaime Pressly drew the ire of many on the internet when she shared a photo of herself with her 12-year-old, Dezi, and noted that he’s her “favorite.” (She also has a pair of twins who are toddlers.)
“Best time ever hangin with my favorite son, Dezi. That’s right I said it,” Pressly wrote on Instagram ― adding that although she has “a favorite son,” she loves “all 3 of my boys with everything I have in me.”
“Dez and I have a special bond that no one else will ever match because we’ve grown up together,” she wrote.
While some of the actress’ followers found the post sweet, others were put off. “I hope your son stole your phone and posted this,” one user wrote, a comment that garnered more than 100 likes.
Parental favoritism is splashed all over television lately, too.
On HBO’s “Succession,” megalomaniac media mogul Logan Roy takes obvious pleasure in watching his three kids jockey for the “favorite” position and the role of successor to the family business. (OK, four kids counting Connor, but he’s considerably less interested in running Waystar Royco). Spoiler alert: In last week’s season finale, “No. 1 boy” Kendall may have secured the title again. The power play he made at episode’s end was so bold and self-serving, even dear old Dad couldn’t help but smile with pride ― even if he was getting backstabbed.
“Kimberly [was the favorite] 10 years ago,” Khloe Kardashian said on “Watch What Happens” in January. “Kylie now.” (It seems like profitability factors into Jenner’s rankings.)
But parental favoritism has always been a meaty, compelling topic: The ramifications of playing favorites show up in the Bible (Rebecca gravitated toward Jacob), Greek myths (Athena was Zeus’ fave) and fairy tales (the ugly stepsisters trump Cinderella).
Our responses to these stories are so visceral because most of us have firsthand experience with favoritism. One longitudinal study showed that 74 percent of mothers and 70 percent of fathers said they gave preferential treatment to one child.
In the same study, firstborn children reported feeling they were the preferred child, while younger siblings said they sensed the firstborn bias and that it affected their self-esteem.
Naturally, favoritism is a hot topic in family therapy, too. Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child,” says that most parents she works with are inherently drawn to one child, even if they’re not conscious of the fact.
“In my experience you can often tell they view their children differently from their body language and the way they speak to them,” she told HuffPost.
Others clients come in specifically for the issue: The parents feel guilty over having a favorite and want to strengthen their relationship with the less favored one, von Lob said.
“Favoritism is so triggering and polarizing because it speaks to the relative worth of children in families.”
The stakes are high: “A less favored sibling may tell me they’ve internalized a sense of being overlooked, of never feeling good enough and a deep sense of inadequacy,” von Lob said. “A favored child may also suffer; sometimes, they’ve developed a deep-rooted fear and insecurities around losing their top spot or feel the pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations.”
At its worst, favoritism can set up kids for a lifetime of sibling rivalry. A 2010 study suggested that preferential treatment from parents can make it difficult for siblings to provide support to each other when experiencing crises in adulthood.
“It can drive serious rifts between grown children,” said John Duffy, a psychologist and author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.”
“Favoritism is so triggering and polarizing because it speaks to the relative worth of children in families,” he said. “It can result in unnecessarily hurt feelings and undue pain and suffering and arguing. And frankly, it often indicates something about the way money will be distributed through an estate down the road.”
Obviously, none of this is productive or healthy for families.
“Sometimes, the ‘favorite’ thing is part of family schtick and it’s dismissed as harmless,” Duffy said. “But for the reasons outlined above, it’s not.”
How to acknowledge you have a favorite
To nip favoritism in the bud, it’s important first to acknowledge you actually have a favorite, said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“Some children are more in sync with your own temperament and perspectives, making them easier to be ‘favored,’” she said. “And some children are more challenging in personality, so it makes sense you might like one more. Loving is different, of course.”
As most parents will tell you, the title of “favorite” is usually a fluid thing. Your favorite might change daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly.
Favoritism is less child-based than behavior-based, experts say. If Henry is in the thick of the terrible twos while Elliott, a 5-year-old, has been bringing his A game to his chores, homework and bed-and-bath routine, you’re naturally going to favor Elliott over Henry, however unconsciously.
“I play favorites, but my favorite child is always the one who is listening in the moment or goes to sleep the fastest at night,” said Aaronica Cole, a mother of three who runs the blog The Crunchy Mommy. “I have pretty low standards!”
Cole lessens her guilt by reminding herself she’s only human. In the same way she has a favorite bra, T-shirt, movie, food and man (her husband, naturally), every once in a while, she slips and plays favorites with her kids, too.
“I think we feel guilt about this because as moms, we’re expected to be these perfect people with zero flaws,” Cole told HuffPost in an email. “The truth? We. Are. Humans. Too. It’s important to remember that!”
Having a favorite doesn’t mean that you love them any more or less than your other children. “It just means that they are behaving or embodying something that you favor,” she said.
“In truth, all of my children are my favorite at some point, [and] they all also get on my nerves at some point,” she added. “Balance.”
How to lessen the negative effects of favoritism
More often than not, parents have favorites not so much because of a deep appreciation for one particular kid, but because they’re overlooking the good in their other children, according to Duffy.
“In many families ― mine included ― the rule follower is the most appreciated,” he said. “The child who pushes most against the grain is often least appreciated. If parents could find appreciation and admiration for the other child’s positive qualities, then more equity might be felt between all siblings.”
Monitoring your internal dialogue helps, too.
“I would advise parents to clarify the difference between favorite child and ‘child I’m drawn to most,’ and why,” Duffy said. “This allows for the unconditional love for each child across the board.”
If your children talk openly about who’s the favorite, you should address the elephant in the room, said Nancy Burgoyne, a psychologist and vice president of clinical services at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. If the matter goes unaddressed, the stories your children tell themselves about their worth in your eyes can be devastating.
Choose your words wisely. Burgoyne gave the example of a father of two boys who addressed the situation in a way that was palatable for his young son.
“He started by validating the child’s feelings: ‘I hear you; you feel angry because you think I like your brother more than I like you. Is that right?’” she recalled. “Then he said, ‘Right now, your brother and I are getting along better than you and I are getting along, that’s true. I am sorry if that hurts your feelings. I love you very much and always will.’”
To get your unfavored child back in good standing, try to acknowledge good behavior on their part in front of the entire family.
“One way to combat your natural favoritism, in addition to being fair in rules and rewards, is to focus on offering positive praise for behaviors you would like to see more,” Deverich said. “That positive feedback not only bolsters the self-worth of the unfavored child, but it reminds the parent of the good the child has.”
If you still feel guilt, know that even therapists admit they sometimes feel like choosing favorites, even if they don’t let themselves do it.
“I walk my talk here,” Deverich said. “No favorites. It’s all about squelching your natural impulses.”