Does Every Parent Have a Favorite Child?
Last week Time Magazine had as their cover story, “Why Mom Liked You Best: The Science of Favoritism” though upon reading the article I didn’t find any real scientific evidence for favoring one child over another.
My oldest son sees the Time magazine lying on the coffee table. He laughs.
“I bet [the 12 yr old] is your favorite,” says my son.
“Why would you say that?” I ask.
“Well, I mean… look at him. He’s just so… likeable.”
He uses the word likeable as though it is some sort of affliction or grave character defect that should be overcome. I laugh. My 16 yr old is the one who most shares my sense of humor. Always has. We get each others’ jokes and stories without having to dive into explanations. Sometimes a single word will make us double over with laughter while no one else gets the joke.
“I don’t have a favorite.” I protest. And, I mean it. I don’t prefer one of my children over another. They are all different.
“Well, if I had to pick a favorite, he’d be mine. He’s just so easy to get along with,” says my oldest son.
Maybe that’s it. Parenting my 12-year-old son is easy, not because of me, but simply by virtue of his personality. He was born that way. He makes me feel like a good parent. What’s not to like about that? If he were my only child I would think that I had all the parenting answers. Quite frankly, I’d probably be insufferable. I have always said it is a good thing I have other children who keep me humble.
I think what I object to the most is not the idea that parents might prefer a child, but the choice of the word favorite and the implication that the other child(ren) isn’t liked. In families that are not as large as mine this sets up a favorite/not favorite, a liked/unliked dynamic. In life, we get along with some people better, that doesn’t mean we don’t like everyone else.
I don’t have a favorite. I don’t think that I favor any one child over another. My children span across ten years and they have very different needs from me as a mother. If you were to take a snapshot of my house one evening and see my 6-year-old cuddled up on the couch next to me reading a storybook and my 15-year-old sitting across the room texting his friends on his phone, it might appear to the casual observer that I was favoring the “baby.” But then a snapshot a few hours later when all the little kids are in bed and my teenagers are hanging out in the dimly-lit kitchen, eating ice cream the younger kids have no idea even exists, chatting and joking with me, telling me stories of their lives, it might appear in that snapshot that I favored the older kids.
You know what? Nothing is ever equal. Not in your family and not in life. Is it fair? Well, as fair as it is ever going to be. Sometimes one of my children needs more from me than another. Sometimes one of them will be going through a particularly trying phase and I am exasperated with him/her. Sometimes I will really need a break from a particular child. But it is never always the same one. I like to tell them that they all annoy me equally.
I am sure that there are families out there who are dysfunctional enough where one child is obviously favored over all others. But I would have to think that is the minority. Most of us probably worry more about things like this than are necessary. We should just remember to treat our children as individuals, celebrate their differences, and not worry so much about everything being perfectly even or equal.
I don’t think it is about raising kids identically with even number of lessons, or outings with dad, or dates with mom that our children remember. What our kids remember is how we made them feel. Did we delight in them as individual people? Did we pay them attention? Did we stop, look them in the eye and really listen when they spoke? Did we acknowledge what was important to them, even if it was something we didn’t quite understand? In they end our children will remember how it was we made them feel during their years growing up, not the stuff they got or didn’t get. Or the things their siblings got. It is easier to point out material inequities than it is to express emotions, probably because it is black and white, and therefore not up for interpretation. So when someone says, “She got a Hello Kitty backpack and I had to use an ugly one. You liked her best!” it really isn’t about the Hello Kitty backpack at all.
“Who do you think is my favorite child?” I ask them one night after dinner while we are all just hanging around, counting the minutes to bedtime. Okay, maybe I am the only one counting the minutes.
The younger children all shout over each other, “Me! Me! ME!”
My 16-year old just laughs the laugh of someone who feels confident that he knows the answer.
My 12-year old asks, “Is it me? I hope it’s me!”
My 15-year old points to himself and his oldest brother, “It has to be one of us. The little ones are just so annoying!”
My 14-year old asks, “Wait. Do you have a favorite?”
I think that last questions says it all.
Photo credit: Thinkstock