Don’t Play Favourites … is that possible?

Favouritism is Issue #1 with kids. “Don’t Play Favourites” is Rule #1 for parents. It seems that all parents are guilty of having a favourite child and all the children know it too.

It’s unrealistic for parents to claim they never play favourites. It’s bound to happen. Moms, dads and the kids all have unique needs, temperaments and roles. Moms and dads can’t help but feel differently about each child. Some parents’ and some children’s personalities automatically clash, while others naturally mesh. Certain children bring out the best in their parents, while other kids know what buttons to push, how and when to do it and seem to relish doing it.

Is it “mission impossible” to think that there could be no favourites or, better still, that each sibling can be treated as the favourite?

Remember you are an adult and hopefully mature, rational and compassionate. You should recognize that one’s perception is one’s reality. Your job is to not let your children perceive your behaviour as favouritism.

Your children are still developing from their selfish primitive selves and are driven by emotions as opposed to reason. They won’t automatically understand and buy in to the “perception is reality” argument, but I think it‘s valuable to delve into the semantics and meaning of “favourite“. Try to explore the meaning of “favourite” while staying connected to your children’s feelings, attitudes and behaviours.

Understand what “favourite” really means
Merriam Webster has two definitions that should be appreciated. The first is:

“one that is treated or regarded with special favour or liking; especially: a person who is specially loved, trusted, or provided with favours by someone of high rank or authority”

This definition should be your priority since it stresses special, love and trust.

The second definition is: “a competitor judged most likely to win”.
At home, minimize this second definition. Your children will experience enough of it at school and in the community.

Make them all feel special
Let each child know they are special in their own unique way. Start by recognizing each child’s natural abilities every time you deal with them or think about them. Enjoy each of your children’s individual talents and make sure they notice your enjoyment. Acknowledge their talents and successes by telling them how they are one of a kind and esteemed for it.

But, be specific about it. Just saying “good job” isn’t good enough! Kids eventually recognize that this is just routine rhetoric without paying close attention to what’s going on. Be more precise and describe the distinct skills, behaviour and accomplishments that you observed that makes the child special, without comparing to a sibling or any other child for that matter. Looks like we are getting into “praising”. There are enough issues and differing views on how to do this properly that I’ll save the discussion a separate post.

Let each child be who they are. Don’t pigeonhole or label them. Don’t lock them into their position in the family constellation (oldest, middle, youngest, first). These are labels that are too general and misleading. They don’t do justice to the infinite array of attitudes, feelings and behaviours that characterize each child.

Trap #1 – Who do you love most?
If you make all your children feel special, it should be easier to deal with this trap. Being politically correct works. Say “I love you both in special ways because you are both special in different ways.” I would be tempted to emulate Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s – “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Try adapting her poem to include the child’s special qualities and talents.

Don’t withhold your affection or attention from your “favourite” child in order to make it up to a less-favoured child. Can you spread your love equally? We have another trap here – be equal and fair – which will be discussed in the next post.

Don’t compare your children to one another
Avoid comparisons. Your children will get enough of being compared to others outside the home. For much of their life they will be rated on their performance: grades in school, the batting order on the baseball team, races and games among themselves. Don’t do it at home.

Value the child for himself and not in comparison with others. Comments like, “Why can’t you make good grades like your brother?” are forbidden. They lead to feelings of inferiority, which encourages undesirable behaviour among siblings.

Acknowledge your children’s accomplishments without comparing them and you won‘t fall into Trap #2 – “Who’s the best?“. Children don’t expect you to say who’s better; they are only fishing for reassurance about how you feel about them. Children want acknowledgement that they have done something that pleases the parent, that makes the parent proud of them and their uniqueness. But be careful when praising. Praise the behaviour, not the child, without comparing to a sibling.

Be there for each child
Make sure that each child gets a few minutes each day alone with you. It doesn’t take a lot of time to make your child feel special. Make it “quality” time – uninterrupted, one-on-one and all about only them. Don’t talk about the other children.

Stay alert and give them your full attention. Listen carefully to how your children feel about what’s going on in the family. This will help you keep tabs on their relationships. You may even discover that they have some positive feelings for each other! Wouldn’t it be nice to let a child know what their siblings admire about them?

Try not to be defensive if one child accuses you of favouritism. Instead try to find out what makes your child believe you care more about the other child. I am drawn to the many good ideas in Respectful Parents Respectful Kids by Sura Hart & Victoria Kindle Hodson, PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas, CA, 2006. This book is based on Marshall Rosenberg’s work emphasizing how to deal with feelings and needs to resolve differences and conflicts peacefully. The first post in that series is at:

Don’t get trapped by “togetherness”. Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish in Siblings Without Rivalry, Perennial Currents, 1998 recommends:

“If children are going through a period where there’s constant irritation between them it doesn’t make sense to subject them to “togetherness”. It will just drive them further apart.”

Split the kids and parents up into separate groups and separate activities that will give everyone more breathing space.

Trap #4 – Equality and Fairness – will be covered in the next post.

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