I have long suspected that my mother favored my older sister. I’m not sure if this is something I actually witnessed, or something my sister surreptitiously manipulated me into feeling. Whatever the case, I embodied the much-maligned younger sibling to a T.
Many years ago, before I had my own children, I was having coffee with my aunt when she confessed that she favored one of her children over the other. Actually, it wasn’t really a confession – there was nothing guilty or secretive about it – it was more a statement of fact. I felt vindicated; here was an adult, a parent, admitting something I had always believed taboo. I confided that I had long suspected that my mother favored my sister. My aunt, alas, didn’t disagree.
Now that I have kids, I find that favorites do exist, even at an early age. Of course, at this age the preference is more age-based than anything else: at the ripe old age of three, my son Declan is capable of carrying on a conversation and sharing a Frappucino, both activities I enjoy. Ronan, on the other hand, just shy of two, is capable of head-butting his cousins and throwing his food on the floor.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I love one of my kids more than the other, or that I’m likely to “accidentally” leave one at the gas station. When Ronan wraps his grubby little arms around my neck, puts his head on my shoulder and sighs, “Mommy,” my heart actually hurts with love. But whether it’s age-based or personality driven, I’m sure that as my kids grow up I’ll like them in different ways.
And research confirms that I’m not alone. A 1997 Cornell University study found that 80 percent of older moms (anonymously) admitted to having a favorite child. The study also found that 60 percent of children could not identify who was their mother’s favored child. So that’s some small comfort: we may have a favorite child, but we don’t let it show.
A recent thread on a parenting message board begins with the post, “I know, it’s taboo to admit. But do you have a favorite child?” The poster explains, “To me, it’s like any other relationship. I have a large group of friends and I love them all dearly, each in their own way for their own reason. But there are one or two who just click better with me. I can’t even place why. It just feels different.” The poster closes with, “Needless to say, I love ALL of my children,” which struck me as a little defensive.
When I asked other parents if they had a favorite child, many looked at me with a mix of shock and disgust. Some professed to having no partiality at all. Others claimed that preferences were situational. And then there were the really honest ones.
“ABSOLUTELY,” (her emphasis, not mine) wrote one friend in response to my email. “It was my middle son. We thought alike and loved to do things together.” She admitted, “I know he knows that he was the favorite but I doubt the other two knew.”
Another mother writes of her daughter, “I really feel like there is just a different connection there. It’s so strong. It’s just this amazing feeling.” The same mother recalls her own mother’s favoritism: “I was never hurt over it. I’ve always understood that my mom loved me but just clicked with my brother.”
So why are so many parents loathe to admit what one father calls “an obvious truth”? Because as parents, it’s hard for us to separate love from like. Admitting that your personality is more compatible with one of your kids than the other is by no means a reflection of love. But many people see it that way.
Stacy DeBroff, founder of momcentral.com, calls favoritism “somewhat inevitable.” She explains, “As a parent, you find yourself drawn to a child who is most like you – traits that you can identify with and deeply empathize with as you experience them yourself.” Though I have yet to see my own experiences reflected in my young children, save Declan’s fear of the dark and occasional bed-wetting, I do see this happening with my sister, whose six-year-old daughter is a carbon copy of herself at the same age. As such, she is dramatic and fiercely resentful of all the “little kids” in our communal household (that would be Declan and Ronan and her three younger siblings). Whereas I, a younger sibling myself, might have told her to suck it up (in nicer terms, of course), my sister, who was fiercely resentful of having to share a room with me at the same age, decided to convert a storage room into a bedroom for her oldest daughter. While my sister insists that she doesn’t favor any of her five children, clearly she feels a certain affinity for the daughter whose experiences most closely match her own.
For other parents, it’s the kids most like them who are the hardest to relate to. When we see our own flaws reflected in our children, For many harried parents, the favored child is simply the easiest one.it can be hard to tolerate. One mother confesses her preference for her daughter, going on to say, “[My son], well, I love him but, my God, does he ever get on my nerves. Apparently he’s just like me, and that’s the problem.”
For many harried parents, the favored child is simply the easiest one. As one friend joked, his favorite was “whichever one is most soundly asleep at the time.” In response to the aforementioned bulletin board posting, one mother wrote, “Right now the baby is my favorite, but that’s b/c he can’t talk back to me and doesn’t dump his toys all over the floor. . .YET!!” Another mother confessed, “Heck, sometimes the best any of them can do is ‘least-annoying!’”
In some cases, the kids do the deciding for you. My three-year-old isn’t shy about voicing his preferences; when I ask him how much he loves me, he throws his arms open as wide as they can go; when my husband asks the same, Declan holds his thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart. And when two-year-old Ronan wakes up in the morning, it’s always with an ear-splitting “Daddy!”
But I’m sure this won’t always be the case. Just as my favorite will change as my sons grow up and develop their personalities, so too will theirs change as they reject conversations and Frappucinos for chess or football or whatever they choose to do. I expect that one day down the road, they will ask me which one I prefer. And I’ll borrow the line of this smart mother: “I will always love you both totally equally. But from time to time, I like one of you better than the other.” And who might that be at any given moment? A good parent never tells.