Dr. Peggy Drexler
August 24, 2012 11:30 am

Two years apart growing up, sisters Brenda, Katelyn, and Laura always felt loved and cared for by both of their parents: They all attended prestigious private schools, got their choice of camps and after-school programs, and were showered with plenty of attention besides. But everyone knew that Laura, the youngest, was their father’s favorite. She was a talented soccer player and the prettiest of the three. Like him, she went on to law school and became a successful attorney. They’d always shared lots of inside jokes. Despite the fact that she was just as successful as her sisters—and at times, even more so—Brenda and Katelyn felt Laura got more of their parents’ attention. They also suspected Laura got a little more in the way of financial support, though no one ever asked and Laura would never say.

If you’ve got siblings, some of this may sound familiar. Perhaps you always felt your older sister was the family favorite. Or maybe you knew that you were. Most parents deny favoring any one child over the others (you certainly won’t get an answer out of me), but studies tell us that it’s nearly impossible not to. It’s often purely biological: In many cases, we’re hard-wired to prefer our most genetically promising offspring, whether that means the best looking, the brightest, or the most athletic (it’s true, and has a name: reproductive narcissism). Most parents don’t actively pursue having a favorite. Favoritism is simply unconscious. Can’t be helped.

Understanding this is key in putting favoritism into perspective, especially if you’re not the one on top, or even if you are. It’s extremely hard not to take a parent’s preference personally, but really: It’s rarely a reflection of your worth or importance to them, or personal at all. Many times, it’s the most vulnerable child who gets preferential treatment, because parents think she needs it more. Middle kids often get short shift because they never had the chance to have the parents to themselves (unless, of course, they’re the only one who never leaves home). And sometimes, favoritism is purely circumstantial. As the youngest of four, Fiona very clearly remembers being doted on by her parents, especially her mother. Years later, she found out they had lost a baby not long before getting pregnant with Fiona. Perhaps to compensate for lingering grief, Fiona nearly always got whatever she wanted, and had fewer chores. She was punished less severely whenever she misbehaved. Because of this, Fiona felt resentment from her older siblings from an early age—resentment that has lessened over time but not by much. “Being the favorite made me the odd kid out for so many years that it was hard to get back ‘in’ with my brothers and sisters,” Fiona, now in her 30s, says.

In cases where favoritism is personal, however, it’s often easy to understand why, and can include shared interests, similar personality, or proximity. Laura, for example, enjoyed her father’s three favorite pastimes—politics, tennis, and action movies—whereas neither of her sisters had any interest, and let him know that. She also lived the closest to home. Simply put, seeing her parents more gave her an advantage.

While studies show that “disfavored” kids are more likely to be depressed, anxious, or suffer from low self esteem even into adulthood, being the favorite isn’t necessarily the best position, either. Studies also show that family favorites may grow up with a sense of entitlement. They’re more aggressive, and not in a good way. They have a harder time forging bonds outside the home. As we saw with Fiona, they might miss out on a close relationship with their siblings. And they may be unprepared to enter a real world that doesn’t see them as the most special person in the room.

It’s important to remember—whether you’re the preferred kid or not—that love and favoritism are two different things. The idea that your parents might like your sister more than they like you is tough to take, sure. But know that parents can love all their children, even if they favor one over the other. Think about it: You probably have a favorite family member yourself. It doesn’t mean you love the others any less. Or maybe it’s a matter of perception. Could you be wrong about how your parents feel? It’s worth asking. Chances are Mom will never cop to having a favorite child, but hearing you wonder if you’re not it might help her realize how she’s been acting—and maybe even send a little more of that preferential treatment your way.

(Image via Shutterstock).

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