Do You Have a Favorite Child?

Dawn Davenport


Do you have a favorite child? According to research, we shouldn’t be too quick to deny it.

do most parents have a favorite child? Research says yes.

The book, The Sibling Effect, claims that every parent has a favorite child. This claim made the front cover of Time Magazine. Author, Jeffrey Kluger, states:

“It’s one of the worst kept secrets of family life that every parent has a preferred son or daughter… .  And on pain of death, parents insist none of [this] is true.”

While the parents may deny it, Kluger claims each child in the family is well aware of their favoritism status, or lack thereof. As I read his well-researched article and book, I found myself arguing out loud with some of his conclusions. Now, talking to myself is not an uncommon occurrence (I have some of my best conversations that way), but a heated discussion with a magazine is a little out of character.

Do I Have a Favorite Child of My Four?

I stewed over that article for a while, and then screwed up my courage and sat down with my eldest son.  In the face of Kluger’s certainty, I approached the conversation with some trepidation:

Me: I read this article that claims that all parents have a favorite child, and that every child in the family is aware of it.  So, I was wondering if you thought I had a favorite.

Son #1 (who is our second child): Sure, I’m your favorite; and yeah, I think the others know it.

Son #2 (who is our third child) was sitting in the other room, and overhearing the conversation, came to join us:  I don’t know what family you’re living in, but I’m clearly the favorite in this one.

Right about then, their younger sister (our fourth and youngest child) walked through the room.

Son #1 and #2 almost in unison: Oh man, it is SO her.  She is absolutely your favorite.

Youngest Daughter, after a brief explanation of the topic, shrugged and grinned knowingly (with just a hint of sheepishness thrown in for good measure) at both brothers, then pirouetted out of the room.

When I asked why (OK, maybe “demanded proof” might be the better choice of words) they thought I favored their younger sister, they cited the following.

  • She was allowed to watch three or four (the exact number was the subject of a surprising amount of discussion that I’m embarrassed to say I participated in) PG 13 movies before she was 13.  Not only were they not allowed to watch PG 13 movie before that magical age, I also didn’t let them watch some “perfectly acceptable” TV shows, such as Seinfeld.  (One fateful day I came upon Son #1 watching Seinfeld and made him turn it off because “Seinfeld might as well be rated R”—a statement I’ve certainly come to regret if not for its inaccuracy, but for how often he has thrown it back at me.)
  • She got a cell phone a year younger than they had.

Their proof of favoritism supports my theory that what children often see as favoritism is more a difference in parenting caused by more experience, changed circumstances, or sheer weariness. We did allow Youngest Daughter to see a few PG13 movies, but only because when we wanted to go to the movies as a family, the older kids, most specifically Son #1, complained so much about having to see “some stupid G rated movie” that the evening was ruined for all of us, unless we allowed him a fair share of the selecting. Needless to say, he was only interested in seeing PG 13 movies.

As for the cell phone, by the time the youngest reached high school, cell phones were much more prevalent, and we were more comfortable about how to set limits on the potential downsides. Also, no doubt we were worn down by the constant arguments from four kids as to why we were stuck in the telephone dark ages, and quite frankly, it wasn’t worth the fight.

Although my sons didn’t mention it, they easily could have pointed out other perks with being the youngest, not the least of which is that she has more parental time and attention since there are now only two kids full time in our house. Although from her standpoint all this parental attention is a decidedly mixed blessing, it comes with some significant advantages. At the risk of sounding defensive, my point is that this is more luck of the birth/adoption order, not favoritism.

What the Science “Says”

Kluger argues forcefully that favoritism is part and parcel of being a parent.  In essence, he says we can’t help ourselves.  From the research he cites, there doesn’t seem to be a set pattern of favoritism, but first and last born are often chosen.  Mothers often prefer the first born son and fathers the last born daughter.  In two children families, parents often split their favorites. He says the best we can do is try to keep this information to ourselves.

I’m Not Convinced

I am not convinced, and I think my objections go beyond simple denial. In fact, I’ll freely admit that some of my kids are easier for me to parent.  Research supports that we come into this world with a certain general temperament.  (We did a fantastic Creating a Family show on the whole nature vs. nurture debate—Is Genetics or the Environment Most Important in Determining Who Our Kids Will Be?)

Both parents and kids have a general personality and ways of interacting in this world, and some temperaments fit more naturally together than others. But, humans are not static beings, and children, in particular, are constantly growing and developing. Parental personalities are more set, but life circumstances change. With all of this changing and growing going on, who is the “easy” child is constantly changing as well. The status of “easiest child” has flowed to each of my kids, but I still contend that that month’s easy child is not my favorite child.

What Kids Say

I work with the youth at our church each week and raised this subject over dinner with a group of five middle school girls. I was blown away by most of their ready answers. Three of the girls immediately responded that their parents had favorites; while the other two thought not. Of the three that acknowledged favoritism, two, both in two children families, thought their parents split favorites, and they didn’t seem to mind. One girl, however, the eldest in a three-child family, was clearly frustrated when she told us both her parents favored the youngest daughter, who is four years younger.

Her: She gets to do everything earlier than I did. Like she got to use the computer when she was 9, and I had to wait until I was 11. And they don’t make her do some of the same stuff they made me do. I had to walk the dog when I was 7, but my parents didn’t make her walk the dog until she was 8 or 9.

Me: Do you think it could be that your parents have learned a thing or two by parenting you and your brother, and they make changes to what they do based on what they learned?

Her: I’m definitely the guinea pig in the family, but they shouldn’t change what they do.

Me: So, if they baked you a birthday cake, and it flopped because they made a mistake, they should not correct their mistake when they are baking a cake for her birthday.

Her: Right!!  [long pause] Well, that’s not a good example because I don’t care about the cake. But everything else they should do the same.

Her examples of favoritism sounded to my parental ear like the run-of-the-mill advantages of youngest status rather than favoritism, but her pain was real. I don’t live in her home, and it is possible that her parents do favor the younger daughter. But isn’t is also possible that some kids are hypersensitive to fairness and less flexible at sharing parental time and attention?

A couple of days later, when my family was sitting around the fire talking, I raised the subject again. The first time around, I had sensed a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to our conversation, and I wanted a truer measure of what they really thought. Son #1 and Youngest Daughter both said they didn’t really think there was a favorite in our family. Now, whether they really believe that or were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear, I don’t know, but they seemed genuine. Son #1, clearly missing the point of what parents need and want, said that if we had a favorite it would be Daughter #1 since she no longer lives at home, and thus is the least work and worry for us. I decided my explanation of the parental desire to be needed and the nature of parental worry would be lost on him.

I did notice that Son #2 was suspiciously quiet during our conversation.  Hummm, think I’ll go wake him up to spend some quality time with him.

Interview with the Author

I interviewed Jeffrey Kluger shortly after his book, The Sibling Effect: What Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us, was published. I told him I disagreed with his conclusion that all parents have favorites. I knew from my research that he had two children, so I asked him which one was his favorite. He paused and then said:

“OK, all parents have favorites except me and you.”

That worked for me.

I highly recommend listening to this interview: All about Siblings: Parental Favoritism, Age Spacing, Birth Order. The book, The Sibling Effect, is well researched and we talked about birth order, age spacing, and other fascinating topics that affect how we relate to our siblings and how we parent.

Originally published in 2011; Updated in 2018
Image credit: CorruptKitten

02/07/2018 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 9 Comments

9 Responses to Do You Have a Favorite Child?

  1. Avatar Dawn says:

    My kids are having way too much fun with this topic. My eldest daughter, who is in the Peace Corps, just read this blog and sent the following comment:

    “Okay, while you’re right that I don’t think you guys have a favorite, I would point out that [Youngest Daughter] has it ridiculous easy, and you guys spoil her like crazy (*cough* PG-13 movies *cough*). I don’t actually think that’s a sign of favoritism.

    You did change how you treated my younger siblings because you had learned things with me or because you were bowing to a changing society or a changing family structure, and that isn’t a sign of favoritism, it’s a sign of being smart. I mean, it could be a sign of favoritism in certain situations, and I’ll never stop arguing that it’s deeply unfair that [Brother #1} got to drive with someone in the car immediately, while I had to wait an ENTIRE YEAR MY LIFE, WHICH WAS SO DIFFICULT, but for all we joke that you guys love one of us more, I don’t think you were ever nicer to one of us because you loved that child more. And while I might feel that’s it’s unfair that my siblings don’t have to suffer as much as I did, I know that’s not a sign of favoritism. (Again, only said with the clarity of hindsight and because I no longer need to try to guilt you into doing things for me.)”

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    To The Adopted Ones out there: don’t lord it over us natural kids! To the Natural Kids out there( of which I am one!): yeah, it sucks when your parents favor the adopted kids over the rest. I feel your pain, kids, I have the same pain. Nothing makes it go away, huh? And when the adopted one gets everything when relatives die, and you (the natural kid) get nothing, yeah, that old pain only gets worse. Why can’t parents who favor just admit to it? Won’t make it any better, but just tell the dang truth! And why favor in the first place? Answer us that, parents! Who is my adopted sister? She didn’t hang the moon! She ain’t all that and a bag of chips! Who is she? She’s a gay freak cop, that’s all. What about the kid my mom gave BIRTH TO?? What about the grandbaby she said she always wanted?? The illegitimate chocolate drop grandbaby of my sister’s dyke girlfriend will get what I was supposed to get, what about my baby? He’s legitimate! He was meant to be! I know, ranting and raving won’t help. Gotta just move on, don’t we, kids? Hard to do though….

  3. Avatar Wes says:

    Great post and I totally agree.

  4. Avatar Julie says:

    Great post! Just like anything else… I think that some parents play favorites and others don’t. In my family it was ridiculously obvious. I didn’t carry the nickname Cinderella for nothing. I’d be cleaning the house while my brothers were out playing. My brother would tell my parents to eff off and then leave in the car while I got to walk (I’m the oldest) on the rare occassion I was allowed out. The list is endless. Funny thing is, the ones they favored are the ones who treat them like dirt.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I agree that clearly some parents have favorites. Some are obvious with their favoritism and some try to hide it. But I don’t agree that ALL parents have favorites and what passes for favoritism I think is often goodness of fit or birth order status.

  5. You have it exactly right. Favoritism that is healthy rotates among children in a family; it reflects the dynamics of personalities that are changing and evolving so that at different times, different parents may mesh better with different children. Favoritism that is more likely to contribute to unhealthy psychological development is favoritism that is “stuck” between one parent and one child; it is more likely that this brand of favoritism reflects an unhealthy attachment between parent and child. THE FAVORITE CHILD describes in greater detail the ramifications of these different forms of favoritism.

  6. I was dads favorite and the other siblings were moms. Dad and I had similar personalities and interests. I don’t think it really matters much in the grand scheme of things, unless of course a child is not a favorite or either parent. I think it solely depends on personalities and interests intersecting.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      The Adopted Ones, that is almost exactly what the author Jeffrey Kluger said on the Creating a Family show on this topic (Dec. 6, 2011). It only seems to be destructive to kids if they are never in the favored light.

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