What to Do If I Have a Favorite Child?

Mighty Mommy tackles the ultimate parenting taboo: having a favorite child. Turns out, it's very common. And here's why you shouldn't feel guilty about it.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #526
Father shouting at teen on his tablet.

Research Proves Parents Do Have Favorites

In all honesty, for the 25 years I’ve been a mom, I know I’ve had plenty of moments where I favor one kid over another, but in my parenting journey it’s never been a permanent status.  For me, it’s like a moving dial and changes based on what’s going on in our life at that time. The other thing I can say with certainty, it’s not a topic that my friends and I have ever discussed. (Probably because we feel guilty to even admit such a thing.) So, I think it’s refreshing and interesting to explore some of the reasons why favoritism happens.

The obvious reasons I’ve uncovered are the following:

  • Birth order (some parents prefer the oldest and/or youngest over middle-born)
  • Gender preference
  • Easier personality or compatible temperaments
  • Physical traits and/or interests/talents remind parents of themselves

Another interesting study shows that parents will favor the child they feel will most likely take care of them when they’re aging. In the essay "Real Reasons Moms Favor One Child Over Others,"  Nancy Josephson Liff shares research conducted at Purdue and Cornell Universities. The initial research revealed that factors such as “emotional closeness, gender similarity, and compatible attitudes were strongly associated with which child the moms identified as the probable caregiver.”

Parents will favor the child they feel will most likely take care of them when they’re aging.

That article cited information from the lead study author Jill Suitor, a sociology professor at Purdue University. “Favoritism matters because it impacts adult sibling relationships, care-giving patterns, and outcomes for mothers...These mothers are saying that if I can't make my own decisions involving my life then who can best make these decisions for me? Who thinks like I do?"  Interestingly enough, I've had countless people tell me, “Don’t worry________ will be the one to take care of you when you’re old!” See, even outsiders have their favorites!

Research from family sociologist Katherine Conger of the University of California showed that 70% of dads and 74% of moms reported preferential treatment toward one child. Her findings, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, also found that most siblings feel they are treated unfairly by their parents. “Everyone feels their brother or sister is getting a better deal,” Conger says. “Regardless of how you look at it, both [earlier and later-born kids] are perceiving preferential treatment.”

When I think about those statistics, I can recall a good handful of moments when I overheard my own kids say, “We know you're Mom’s favorite anyway!”  Ouch! Talk about one more thorn in the side of sibling rivalry.

Parenting Experience Can Influence Favorite Child

Another theory that I came upon (and can relate to) is that the longer you’ve been a parent, the more you tend to favor the youngest of your children because now you’ve got more experience and are more relaxed about it.

As I mentioned in previous episodes, three of my eight kids had significant speech delays during their early years. Because of that, I had to prioritize what was important and where I could best spend my energy. During those intense years of helping my children with speech delays, most of my attention went directly to them. Time was of the essence in getting them the early intervention that they needed and a large part of that was my constant attention to their treatment plans.

Years later, as they overcame many of their challenges, I was able to relax a bit more into parenting and focus on my kids who didn’t have these delays. Playtime, reading and cuddling, and even simply enjoying the routine things such as going to the playground, walking through the mall, and even watching them play without having to constantly label everything we were doing like I did with my kids who had developmental delays was absolutely delightful. If anyone were to compare my parenting in these instances, it definitely looked like I favored the time I was spending with my non-delayed kids, and truthfully, I was.

As we gain more parenting experience, our younger kids benefit. 

See also: 5 Tips to Stay Inspired as a Parent


About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!

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