Girl Talk: The unfairness of playing favourites

Girl Talk: The unfairness of playing favourites
By Julia Low

“Nevermind what your parents told you,” writes author Jeffrey Kluger in Time magazine, “They had a favorite child—and if you have kids, so do you.” Yikes! They're the sort of unspoken words that will break through the love-bubble of any self-respecting adult. Am I the favourite? Oh my gosh, maybe I'm not! Cue memories of Mum saying, "Susie did well in her English test,” as you bawled your eyes out screaming, “That is so unfair!”, tears streaming down your hand-me-down pinafore.

According to Kluger, even loving parents with the best intentions subconsciously have a favourite child. Some parents are great at hiding it, but scientists aren’t constrained by the same pretense of impartiality, he writes, citing studies that point to humans’ natural bias toward the more attractive, be it personality or looks. Is this helpful? We're not sure. But let's examine the evidence anyway...

A study conducted at the University of California concluded that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited preference towards one child. This behaviour is traced back to the parents’ survival needs, which is the natural and perhaps selfish act of wanting to replicate themselves through succeeding generations. More often than not, parents favour children who share their interests. “You remind me of me when I was younger, son!” a father says gruffly, patting a beaming James Jnr. on the back while his brother watched on, envious.

Growing up with the perception of unequal treatment between siblings can be damaging to a child’s psychological well-being. Even as adults, they may still harbour bitter feelings towards their family. One study, conducted by the University of Denver, found that kids who felt ("felt" being the operative word: perception is important here) less loved were "more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression".

Nevertheless, being the golden child has its downsides, too. Apart from the potential developmental basis for arrogance, the favoured child may find it difficult to foster a close relationship with other siblings, while a "steady diet of paternal praise" and preferential treatment can set them up for failure in the world outside the home.

"The biggest risk may be that when you spend your early life enjoying the huzzahs of your parents, you may be unprepared for a larger society in which you're just one adult out of many, with the special charms Mom and Dad saw in you invisible to everyone else," writes Kluger.

As the youngest of three, I have certainly witnessed and experienced my fair share of favouritism. Even though Mum gets extremely defensive when my elder sister and I tease her for favouring our elder brother, sis and I both know it’s true. Everything my brother wanted, he almost always got. When he asked for a new computer (note: he already had a perfectly decent one), he got it at the snap of his fingers. When I asked for a laptop three years ago, however, I got an ancient hand-me-down Macbook that died on me six months later—and I had to buy a budget laptop with my own pocket money. Injustice!

To be fair, my sister and I are daddy’s girls. While Mum was very frugal and gave us the third-degree whenever we asked for some extra pocket money for new clothes or a concert ticket (“What do you need it for?”, “Where are your savings?”, “Didn’t I just buy you new dress?” Um yeah, Mum, about ONE YEAR AGO), Dad would secretly slip us a fifty when Mum wasn’t looking.

Of course, money is not the reason why we’re close to our father; he spent the most time with us growing up, and he just understood us better. And in any case, I reckon parents aren't the only ones guilty of favouritism. I love both my parents to death, but sometimes I secretly prefer one over the other, depending on who’s driving me up the wall at the moment. It’s usually Mum*, but you didn’t hear it from me!

Favouritism can come in many different forms and occur for just as many reasons. While some theorists believe the trailblazing firstborn gets all the attention, sucking all the "resource capital" from parents, others disagree, asserting that the youngest is the most favoured. There's also evidence to suggest that when a child is neglected by one parent, the other parent will go into protective mode and weak and vulnerable children will be paid extra attention to ensure the health and survival of the whole brood.

Oftentimes it is the gender of the child that determines the favourite, especially in three-child families. But narcissism still trumps sex: "What parents seem to value most in their opposite-sex children are the traits that, paradoxically, are associated with their own sex – the sensitive mom with the poetic son, the businessman dad with the M.B.A daughter," says Kluger.

Comfortingly, favouritism conflicts appear to "fade as children grow older". They can also be treated, notes Kluger, with a dose of familial compassion: "If you absolutely must have a favourite (and you must) keep it to yourself...the effort it takes to tell a benign lie is in its own way an act of love toward the unfavoured child". Hence, the perception of the child, no matter the parent's inclination, is the key to ensuring their well-being. And in the case that one child has special needs? "Talking about the situation openly is the best and most direct way to limit resentment" amongst other children.

In short: the least you can do is fake impartiality 'til your kids fly the coup.

*Just kidding. Love you, Mum! And thanks for the spankin' new MacBook Air.

Jeffrey Kluger is the author of The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.

Julia @ Girl With a Satchel