While raising more than one child,
today’s parents might recall their own
youthful anxieties. They may come to
understand that “the favorite child”
is often just a mythical person.
by Joan M. Thomas
Frayed and yellowed, the black and white snapshot captured by the trusty Kodak Brownie a half-century ago slipped contemptuously to the floor. Stunned by her own angst, Mary Lou Mordino finally put it back in her sister’s photo album. In her mid-sixties and a reasonably happy, well-adjusted individual with a fulfilling life, she had only to view that simple family photo for those old feelings of being rebuffed to surface.
Yet when she recounted the experience to her siblings, they only laughed. She claimed that when the five of them lined up in front of the family sedan for that shot, their mother said, “Put Mary Lou on the end, so if she looks too bad we can cut her out.”
Now Mary Lou knows as well as her two brothers and two sisters that their mom loved them all. A mother of four herself, Mordino understands that each child is different, making it impossible to treat one the same as the other. Still, she harbors resentment for being what she perceived as the least favorite.
Considering that Mary Lou was the middle child with an outgoing disposition that exuded self-reliance, her mom likely made that remark in jest, never realizing that anyone would take it seriously. And if she doted on one child more than the others at times, it didn’t mean she cared less for the rest. She just reacted to their individual personalities and requirements.
There is no question that some parents do show blatant and cruel favoritism for one child over another. Most parents, however, simply react to each child in an individual way, as did Mary Lou’s mother, depending on their own personalities and the child’s personality and needs.
As pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., in his book, Understanding Sibling Rivalry the Brazelton Way, explains, “There are all kinds of reasons why a parent may favor one child over the others. Birth order, gender, a child’s appearance, the way she moves, her spirit or temperament.” The first point he makes in advising parents what they can do to avoid playing favorites is to face their own reactions.
Likewise, psychologist Martha Edwards of the Ackerman Institute, a not-for-profit agency devoted to the treatment and study of families and to the training of family therapists, said on TV’s The Early Show that parents should accept that they are human and that one child may reach them in a way that the others don’t.
Unique, not equal
Once parents accept the fact that one child may be more difficult or more likeable than the others, they can then move toward appreciating each child as an individual. As Dr. Edwards and other professionals advise, parents should love uniquely, not equally. Upon hearing that simple advice, Barbara W. of St. Louis remarks that she couldn’t have said it better.
Barbara escaped an abusive marriage and went through therapy with her four children, raising them all to be successful in life. She recounts how she worked with one child more than the others because of the need. “Children will take that as favoritism,” she observes.
She then reflects on her own childhood, and how she always thought her mother favored her sister Jean over her. Years later when confronted on the matter, her mom said, “I loved you all the same, but Jean’s need was greater. I always knew that you would make it.”
Barbara compares her mother’s actions to her own parental experience, saying that the effort goes where it is needed. Yet there is no difference in the love, she says.
Avoiding super-parent syndrome
Rather than trying to be super-parents, moms and dads can follow some basic suggestions commonly offered by the experts:
• Recognize each child’s unique qualities, and reflect that to the child, making her feel special.
• Do not openly compare siblings in ways that encourage rivalry or resentment. Dr. Brazelton writes, “The ‘preferred’ child knows he’ll be the target of anger and envy, and the ‘lesser’ ones are bound to feel discouraged.”
• Listen to the child’s or spouse’s concerns about favoritism, and try not to be defensive. They may just need an explanation such as that given by Barbara’s mother.
• Try to spend time alone with each child, and do things that suit his or her own interests. Every child needs individual attention.
• Avoid using labels to identify one child, such as “my gifted one” or the “genius in the family.” That is a form of comparison. On the other hand, simply praising the child for an individual accomplishment is less likely to promote resentment in the others.
One more helpful tip is to be mindful of how what you say may hurt the child’s feelings, such as what Mary Lou Mordino remembered so many years later. Often children take harmless remarks to heart.
Uncovering the truth
Commenting on her own experience as a parent, Mordino echoes the thoughts of Barbara W., saying that her children’s needs were all so different.
With an edge in her voice, she says that her oldest son was a difficult child from day one and demanded so much attention. “He was and still is the most adorable and the most obnoxious,” she adds. After describing the personalities of the boy and girl that followed, she went on to say that her youngest, a girl, got more attention from the entire family. “I think all parents tend to savor everything the last one does as you want to make the best from each stage,” she conjectures.
Yet as Mordino’s youngest sister, the writer of this story can testify that Mordino is an exemplary parent and grandparent. She loves and values each of her children for who they are. Now grown, the siblings are still quite close. Perhaps that feeling of being “cut out” of the picture served to make Mordino more empathetic toward her own offspring when parenting children.
While raising more than one child, today’s parents might recall their own youthful anxieties. They may come to understand that “the favorite child” is often just a mythical person.
The author of three books, freelance writer and historian Joan M. Thomas also enjoys writing feature stories and essays on current topics. Born in Carroll, Iowa, she now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband, Bob, and canine pal, Sasha.
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