London - All parents tell their children little white lies from time to time. “Of course Father Christmas comes down the chimney!” “Eat your spinach - you’ll get as strong as Popeye.” “No, I didn’t put that pound under your pillow. It was the Tooth Fairy,” ... and so on. It’s all part of the magic of childhood.
However, there’s one fib that’s bigger than all the others. It’s “I don’t have a favourite child.”
In his fascinating new book, The Sibling Effect: What Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us, Jeffrey Kluger, a father of two daughters, aged eight and ten, claims that “95 percent of parents in the world have a favourite child - and the other 5 percent are lying.”
Kluger may be exaggerating the figures for dramatic effect - but despite every parent’s vehement denial that they have a favourite child - scientific research shows that he is not far off the truth.
According to one recent study by researchers from the University of California - which followed 384 sibling pairs and their parents for three years - 65 percent of the mothers and 70 percent of fathers exhibited a preference for one child. As this was among families that knew they were being monitored, there’s a strong possibility the true figures could be significantly higher.
Favouritism is certainly a controversial topic. When raised as a subject for discussion on parenting websites, it always elicits an stream of outrage and angry denials. But interestingly, a lot of personal anecdotes appear from parents who say they were overshadowed by a favoured sibling, or were, indeed, their mother or father’s favourite. It seems everyone knows favouritism exists - but nobody wants to put their hand up and say they’re guilty of it themselves.
Lucy Edwards (not her real name), a 41-year-old mother of four from Bath, is just one of a handful of parents ready to admit she has a favourite child. She has two teenage children from her first marriage and two younger children with her second husband.
“I went through a very bitter divorce from my older children’s father when Will was six and Sophie was three,” she explains. “I don’t know if it’s because Will seems to have inherited a lot of my first husband’s personality traits or because I feel he blames me for the divorce turmoil - but I have always found him really difficult to get on with.
“To be honest, It’s a horrible feeling. We clash over absolutely everything. Of course, there are times when we all get along beautifully, and please understand, I love my son passionately - but I do feel I’m treading on eggshells with him much of the time. It’s an uncomfortable and awkward relationship.
“Sophie, on the other hand, is a really easy-going girl. She’s always happy to help around the house and is lovely to her siblings. She’s very popular with her friends - and very responsible. I can’t help favouring her - even though I know it’s wrong. Without really thinking about it, I buy her more gifts, spend more time with her - and even fund her nights out with friends. All things that I don’t really do for Will.
“Will often accuses me of preferring Sophie to him, but I always vehemently deny it - even though there’s obviously an element of truth there. It’s not something I would feel comfortable talking about - even to close friends and family. There’s such a stigma around favouritism.”
Other research, where siblings have been asked to say who their mother and father favour, suggests that mothers do tend to a show a preference for their first-born son, but fathers often dote on their youngest daughters.
Parents will often be drawn to the child who is easiest to get along with - or the child that shares similar traits to them. For example, mom will have a special bond with her sensitive, arty son, while dad lavishes attention on his sporty daughter.
Whatever the case, as Lucy’s story suggests, favouritism is always an emotional minefield. So what effect can being a family favourite - or indeed, to use a technical term, being on the end of Least Favoured Status (LFS) have on a child?
Stephen Scott, Professor of Child Health and Behaviour at King’s College London, has done some fascinating research into the impact of family favouritism with pairs of identical twins.
“We found that even though both children were exactly the same genetically, parents still managed to pick a favourite - and that did have an impact on the children’s behaviour.”
To see how favouritism might affect the children, Professor Scott and his team got together with the parents to talk about their twins individually - their good points and bad - at various stages over a period of several years. The research team then talked to the children’s teachers about how the twins behaved at school. The favoured twins were very confident and sociable and did well at school. But the behaviour of the twins who had been spoken about more negatively by their parents definitely seemed to suffer at school.
“The less favoured twins had fewer friends, were more anti-social and tended to be naughtier than their preferred siblings,” says Scott.
It could be that being an LFS sibling becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the child, picking up on the fact he’s not as well liked as his brother or sister, misbehaves to try to get his parents’ attention. Unfortunately his bad behaviour and attention-seeking only makes the gap between parent and child widen further.
Professor Scott says being least favoured in a family can colour our behaviour as adults. “Children who feel they are less loved within their family are more likely to develop low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.”
But some experts believe being less favoured can have positive consequences. Naomi Richards, who runs confidence-building workshops for children in London, says: “Sometimes being an LFS child can actually work to a child’s advantage. My brother was definitely favoured over me when we were younger - but that has led me to be more resilient, I think.
“It’s helped me cope with knocks and upsets that you come across. It’s also given me the drive and determination to succeed - an ‘I’ll show ‘em!’ attitude, which has proved invaluable in my career. I do think that children that have to try that bit harder to get attention at home tend to develop better social skills than those that are lionised for everything they do.”
Professor Scott agrees that favoured children can sometimes find life difficult when they have to rub along in the real world. “It can come as a bit of a shock to realise you’re perhaps not quite as special as your parents led you to believe. Although most favoured children have enviable levels of self-esteem, there are others that can be unbearably over-confident.”
Psychologists may disagree over the impact favouritism can have on siblings, but one thing they all agree on is if parents do have a favourite they should keep it to themselves - even when their children grow up and have children of their own.
When Janet Bailey, a 36-year-old mother-of-two from Chislehurst in Kent, borrowed her mother’s computer last summer, she noticed a half-written email left on the screen, addressed to one of her mother’s oldest friends. “I was just about to close Mom’s message when something she’d written about my brother caught my eye. ‘Chris, of course, has been amazingly helpful. He’s always been our favourite.’
“I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach,” Janet continues. “I’d always suspected my parents favoured my brother over me - but to see it confirmed in black and white was absolutely devastating. I cried for the rest of the day and still find it incredibly upsetting now.”
“When it comes to family favourites there’s definitely something to be said for the parental code of silence,” says Jeffrey Kluger.
But what should you do if you feel favouritism is upsetting the balance of your family life? Professor Stephen Scott says: “Take time out to really look at each of your children individually. Think about their strengths and weaknesses - and focus on their positives.”
“Try to spend equal amounts of time with all of them,” says Naomi Richards, “doing something with them that they enjoy. Rather than trying to get the fidgety one to enjoy the cinema, take him kite-flying with a friend. Don’t get the bookish one to take up dancing or roller-skating - go to a museum. Accentuating each child’s positives will really help to balance your family dynamic. It just takes practice.” - Daily Mail
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