How Favoritism Hurts Families

A woman I know, Sarah, was a single mother of two little boys when she met, fell in love with, and married Rob, who happened to have two young boys of his own.  We all kind of joked that they were like the Brady Bunch.  Everything seemed wonderful.  But behind the scenes things weren’t as great.  After four years of marriage we were surprised by what seemed to be a sudden divorce.  Sarah later admitted to us that it was really just a lot of small things that added up over time.  One of the main “little things” was showing favoritism.  Even though both she and Rob were determined to blend their families to make “a family,” neither one of them could stop showing preferential treatment to their own biological children.

Madeline and her family.
Madeline and her family.

I don’t have a blended family, but I have found that showing favoritism can be a struggle even for me with my two biological daughters. It’s not that I think of one daughter as my favorite, or that I love one daughter more than the other—but I do sometimes act in ways that could be perceived as favoritism by my daughters, and that too can be damaging in family life.

For example, I am always telling Elizabeth, our oldest, that we have to leave wherever we are because of something that is going on with Alice, our youngest.  Elizabeth loves visiting family and friends and we usually end up leaving because Alice is getting sleepy and needs to be home.  At times when we are home, and it’s bed time, both girls are competing for my attention and I tend to focus on Alice first and make sure she gets to sleep, and then I do hold and rock Elizabeth, and I explain to her that I need to get Alice to go to sleep first so that I can rock her and read a story to her before she has to go to sleep.  And, I’m always telling her that we can’t watch movies because Alice isn’t old enough to watch T.V. yet because it isn’t good for children under age two to have screen time.

I know that Elizabeth doesn’t quite feel it’s fair.  Whenever someone does visit at our house she never wants them to leave.  Whenever we are at someone else’s house she never wants to leave.  And her reason is usually this:  “No, I don’t want you to leave/I don’t want to leave, because Mommy feeds Alice and nobody will play with me!”  And I feel terrible that she feels this way, that she sees my caring for her sister on the most basic level, as favoritism.

It’d be easy for me to shrug this off as “the way it has to be.” After all, babies have different needs than three-year-olds and parenting one of each at the same time can be challenging. But in her article, “Parents: 6 Ways to Avoid the Favoritism Trap,” psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer warns parents to “Never Accommodate to the Lowest Common Denominator.” In other words, don’t just take care of your youngest child and all of their needs and wants before you tend to your oldest/other children, unless it’s a matter of safety or health.  Instead of always deferring to the youngest, Shafer suggests that we as parents simply listen, show concern, and reword what we say to our children.  She gave this example of what to say in a situation like mine: “I know it can be tough having a baby sister that limits some of what we can do.  Is there another time we can cuddle up and enjoy your movie? I really like watching shows with you too.  It’s not favoritism, it’s just a logistic problem we have to solve together.”

I’m always mindful about the things that I do now and how those things will affect my children later in life.  It really seems one of the best things that I as a parent can do is to demonstrate patience. Patience works as an antidote to favoritism because it makes me stop and figure out a way to handle the situation in a way that is fair to both of my children.

It is especially important to find these little ways to fight favoritism, because showing favoritism—whether you realize what you are doing or not—can cause jealousy, hard feelings, and broken relationships, whether it’s with your children or your spouse. As Sarah and Rob came to learn, tensions between parent and child can lead to tensions between husband and wife. One parent can come to resent the other parent after observing what seems like unfair treatment, and this resentment can build and build until it becomes a major problem.

Lately I’ve been trying to put into practice some of Shafer’s suggestions in order to make sure that Elizabeth knows that she is loved every bit as much as Alice, and so that my husband Zach doesn’t feel like I’m playing favorites with the girls.

One way I’ve been doing this is to make sure that every single time that I take our dog, Taco, outside, I ask Elizabeth if she would like to go out with us.  And she always says yes.  I place Alice in her playpen so I know she’s safe and just Elizabeth and I step out into our yard.  Just that simple walk outside gives Elizabeth a moment to breathe and be really happy about being with me.  She knows that we’ll have to go back inside soon and start sharing and communicating as a whole family, but she also knows that it won’t be long before we will have another moment together, and I know that makes her very happy.

It may seem like a little thing. But when it comes to family, sometimes it’s the little things that matter most.









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