Parents Playing Favorites ... Inevitable?

Oct 11, 2011

When it comes to favoring one child over another, most parents will fervently deny that they do it, while others say it's inevitable. Here's what Tell Me More's parenting panel says about the issue.

Jeffrey Kluger is the author of Time's recent cover story "Playing Favorites" and the book The Sibling Effect.

"Favoritism can be so heavily driven by birth order. Parents are driven by — now this is all genetic and unconscious, by the way — but they are driven by an impulse that corporations understand well, which is called sunk costs. By the time your second child comes along, you've had one or two or more years of investing all of your time, all of your energy, all of your money, lots of calories into raising a child. That [first] child is the furthest along the assembly line to a viable adulthood and leaving the family's genes behind. So that child is the one who will, by nature, be favored. The last born often does a very good job of counterbalancing that by learning what are called low power skills. You're the smallest one in the playroom, so you obviously don't have any high-power skills as a way of defending yourself. So you learn to charm and disarm. You learn humor. You learn intuition. All of these work another kind of power on parents.

"The mere act of making the effort to conceal favoritism serves two functions. First of all it, it allows children a certain plausible deniability. You know, even if you know the No. 3 child or the No. 4 or the No. 1 child is the favorite, if Mom and Dad never actually say it out loud, when you're feeling insecure, you can continue to tell yourself, 'Well, they say they have no favorite, so I'm going to believe them. Moreover ... the mere act of making the effort to conceal the truth is in itself the act of love, and children perceive that."

Shawn Bean is the father of two boys. He's also an executive editor at Parenting magazine, and he recently wrote about child favoritism for the magazine.

"The favorite kid is typically the one that makes the parent feels the most needed — whether they have learning disabilities or they need extra emotional support or they just are more clingy.

"I do think there is emotional damage that could be inflicted [by revealing who the favorite child is]. So I think best we can, I think it's probably important to keep that information under lock and key."

Jolene Ivey is the mother of five boys. She's a regular Tell Me More contributor and a Maryland state legislator.

"I think that the problem is that they [sons] all think that my No. 2 son is my favorite. And for a while, I played into it because I thought it was kind of funny. And now it's just family lore — David's my favorite. But in real life, although each of them is my favorite sometimes, maybe David's my favorite more often. But today, Julian is my favorite. Julian is my favorite because the other day, he said, 'Mom, you and Dad are so different, but you parent as one. And if people were all raised by parents like you guys, there would be fewer screwed-up people in the world.'

"I believe that I know who my husband's favorite is, but he would never admit it. And it might be harder to tell, to watch him because he tries very hard to give even attention to everyone. I do too, and I can't really tell you exactly why the kids have chosen one of the kids as my favorite. I do think that that particular child was very difficult to birth. I mean, it was extremely painful. And I think when you work that hard for something, maybe you do value it more."


Tell Me More also reached out to NPR listeners via Facebook for their takes on the issue. More than 2,000 responses poured in.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TONY COX, host: I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few parents in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we're talking about a subject that hits a nerve with many parents and children: the idea of having a favorite kid. Most parents fervently deny that they favor one child over another, but some say it's inevitable and that having a favorite child is just as natural as having a favorite color or food.

We reached out to NPR listeners via Facebook and received more than 2,000 responses, including one from this mom.

MELISSA KEITH: I have four children and my third child is definitely my favorite. From the moment she was born, I kind of felt more of a connection with her than any of my other children. We're taught not to have favorites, but I have favorite friends, favorite family members and I even have a favorite root beer.

COX: Now, that was Melissa Keith(ph) in Clawson, Michigan. Of course, not everybody agreed with her. Here is Anna Martinez-Crippa(ph) from Santa Barbara, California, who also posted on NPR's Facebook page.

ANNA MARTINEZ-CRIPPA: The idea of having a favorite is horrible and a parent that can't appreciate each child individually probably shouldn't have more than one. Of course, some relationships are easier than others, but as parents, our responsibility is to appreciate the differences between them.

COX: So we wanted our parents to weigh in on this very sensitive issue and we've called on Jeffrey Kluger. His recent cover story for Time magazine inspired the conversation we're having today. He is a senior editor at Time and author of the book "The Sibling Effect." He has two daughters, by the way.

Shawn Bean, the executive editor at Parenting magazine and father of two boys, one of whom he says is his favorite. We'll let him explain that in just a minute.

And Jolene Ivey, one of our regular contributors for this segment. She is a Maryland state legislator and mother of five boys.

Let me welcome all three of you to the program.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Tony.

SHAWN BEAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY KLUGER: Hi. How are you?

COX: I have been really looking forward to having this conversation with the three of you. And Jeffrey Kluger, your article in Time magazine - I know there was another in Parenting, as well - got me thinking, so I want to start with you. Do you really think that all parents have a favorite child?

KLUGER: Well, the short answer is yes. But the caveats and the explanations are a whole lot longer than that single word. And I spell these out, both in the chapter and in the magazine article and also in the book "The Sibling Effect," and part of the book deals with birth order, which is another variable here.

But the study that a lot of this work is based on showed that up to 70 percent of fathers and 65 percent of mothers exhibit a preference for one child over another, usually involuntarily exhibiting that preference. And both of those numbers are almost certainly low-balling it because when you - parents do a very good job of concealing their preferences, so the 25 and 30 percent who don't exhibit a preference almost certainly have one, as well. We're genetically hardwired to have a preference.

COX: Let me bring Jolene in on that before I get to Shawn because she has the most children out of all of us on the panel today. Five boys.

IVEY: And probably put together.

COX: Jeffrey says parents do a good job of concealing and I think I'm paraphrasing here. Do you do a good job of concealing or do you even try?

IVEY: Well, my kids don't think I do a very good job of concealing, but I think that the problem is that they all think that my number two son is my favorite and, for a while, I played into it because I thought it was kind of funny and now it's just family lore, David's my favorite.

But in real life, although each of them is my favorite sometimes, maybe David's my favorite more often, but today, Julian is my favorite.

COX: Today, Julian is your favorite.

IVEY: Julian is my favorite because, the other day he said, Mom, you and Dad are so different, but you parent as one. And if people were all raised by parents like you guys, there'd be fewer screwed up people in the world. And I said, this kid - he's my favorite.

COX: Yeah. He sounds like one of those kids that would suck up to Mom and Dad and make them feel he's the favorite.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: Hey, what about you, Shawn? You've got two and you made no bones about the fact that one is a favorite.

BEAN: Well, and just to make sure that I don't have any family troubles years from now, I've got a seven-year-old and a five-year-old. I don't want to disclose, and which I actually didn't quite do in my blog post on parenting.com, but I think the point that I wanted to make was not necessarily that I have a favorite as much as I think I - what's more important is that I'm their favorite. I want to beat my wife out in being the favorite parent. You know, when my kid...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BEAN: You know, when my kid, you know, slams his finger in the toy chest and comes running and says mom, mom, I get it. But to a certain degree I'm like, man, it would have been great if he had called me out and asked for my help. It would have made me feel a lot better. So I think ultimately it comes back to not so much about what how we feel about our kids but a lot of it is about how they make us feel about ourselves.

Usually the most I found and the people that I spoke to since reading Jeffrey's story is that the favorite kid is typically the one that makes the parent feel the most needed, whether they have learning disabilities or they need extra emotional support or they just are more clingy. Typically the kid that makes you feel the most needed is the one...

COX: Is that one that's favored.

BEAN: ...is the one that you favor.

COX: All right. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin. Our Parenting panel this week is discussing whether it is inevitable that parents will have a favorite child. We're talking to Jolene Ivey, one of our regular Moms; Shawn Bean, executive editor of Parenting magazine; and Jeffrey Kluger, senior editor at Time, who wrote a cover story about this.

Here's another reaction I'd like the three of you to hear. From one of our listeners via Facebook, this is Rena Lopez in Seattle.

RENA LOPEZ: I've been waiting my entire life to expose my mother for favoring my brother. There are four of us kids, three girls - and then the king. The king has reigned over our family for over 40 years. The worst part is, us three girls favor him too.

COX: I think that's just really fascinating. Ms. Lopez actually agrees with her parents' favoritism, but many of our commentators were really hurt, even 40 years later by what they saw as bias by their parent. Another woman wrote that her father actually had a ranking system that he told his kids about.

Jeffrey Kluger, you've written a book about this, about sibling order. And by way of full disclosure, I'm a middle kid, older brother, younger sister, so I always felt they got the best spots and there was nothing left for me. What about that? Do we carry our position where we are in birth order and pass it on to our children?

KLUGER: Well, we don't necessarily pass it on to our children but we do carry the influence of how we were treated and how we felt we ranked in the household throughout our lives. And one of the reasons the birth order and favoritism chapters dovetail so well in my book is because favoritism can be so heavily driven by birth order.

Parents are driven by – now, this is all genetic and unconscious, by the way - but they're driven by an impulse that corporations understand well, which is called sunk costs. By the time your second child comes along, you've had one or two or more years of investing all of your time, all of your energy, all of your money, lots of calories, into raising a child. That child is the furthest along the assembly line to a viable adulthood and leaving a family's genes behind. So that child is the one who will by nature be favored.

The last born often does a very good job of counterbalancing that by learning what are called low power skills. You're the smallest one in the playroom so you obviously don't have any high power skills as a way of defending yourself, so you learn to charm and disarm. You learn humor. You learn intuition. All of these work another kind of power on parents.

The middle born is often the one who doesn't get the most goodies. But as your...

COX: Don't I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KLUGER: But as your caller pointed out, if you have a birth order sequence - let's say boy girl boy or girl boy girl, the sole gender in the middle can often trump both the firstborn and the last born.

COX: That's interesting. I want to ask a parenting question of you, Shawn, since you're with Parenting magazine, about this damage issue. Is there any evidence that you are aware of that suggests that A) identifying a favorite to a child or the other siblings is harmful, and B) if so, how long does that tend to last? Is it a lifetime?

BEAN: Well, I can only speak from the small sampling that we got in starting this conversation online. It was interesting because Jeffrey's story really took a picture of us as a people from about 5,000 miles up. And where we work on at Parenting is we're actually talking to, you know, moms and dads, you know, in our neighborhoods, at the playgrounds, you know, on our streets and speaking to them. And what I found mostly was there were a few people who were willing to come out and say it. But more, there was a real indignance of trying to bring this topic out. It was almost as if to say, we know you all have Twinkies and cupcakes in the cupboard. You mind if we see what you have? They're like, absolutely not. We don't give saturated fats to our kids. But we all know that we all do and, you know, hopefully in some sort of, you know, under control. But I found that most people under life and limb would not give up who their favorite is.

And it's funny that Jeffrey's story and all the people that I spoke to really didn't so much start a conversation about which of their kids was the favorite, but was turning around and saying, wow, which one of us did mom and dad favor more? Again, it always comes back to that individual and how...

COX: To your own situation.

BEAN: Yes. Exactly.

COX: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Our parenting panel this week is talking about a very interesting topic - favoritism among children, favoritism actually for us as parents and how, what we thought about ourselves and our position impacts how we treat our own children.

Our guests are Jolene Ivey, one of our regular moms; Shawn Bean, executive editor of Parenting magazine; and Jeffrey Kluger, senior editor at Time magazine, who wrote a very interesting cover article about this recently.

Jolene, the question for you is this: Is there a difference, do you think, because I'm fascinated by the fact that you have five boys and you're navigating these waters - and I'm sure you do a good job of it. But, is there a difference between how you and how your husband treat the boys with regard to who may or may not be considered a favorite?

IVEY: I don't see it but my kids see it. My husband and I are very different in every way. I believe that I know who my husband's favorite is, but he would never admit it. And it might be harder to tell to watch him because he tries very hard to give even attention to everyone.

I do too, and I can't really tell you exactly why the kids have chosen one of the kids as my favorite. I do think that that particular child was very difficult to birth. I mean it was extremely painful and I think when you work that hard for something, maybe you do value it more. Beyond that, I can't really say. But we try - I try - to look for the good in each of my kids. Sometimes the thing that I love most about that kid today is the thing that irritates the heck out of me tomorrow. So we're just all people.

COX: Well, Jeffrey, what about this? Is there a way, or can we as parents really and truly hide our feelings of favoritism? I mean we may try. Are we really fooling anybody other than ourselves?

KLUGER: Well, I'm not so sure we are fooling anybody other than ourselves. But one of the points that comes out in the research that I've looked at stresses that the mere act of making the effort to conceal the favoritism serves two functions. First of all, it allows children a certain plausible deniability. You know, even if you know that the number three child or the number four or the number one child is the favorite, if mom and dad never actually say it out loud, when you're feeling insecure, you can continue to tell yourself, well, they say they have no favorites so I guess I'm going to believe them.

Moreover, and this one operates much more subtly, but I think it's much - it's powerfully effective, the mere act of making the effort to conceal the truth is in itself an act of love and children perceive that.

My mother is 80 years old. On the cover of the sibling effect is the four boys, my brothers and me, and it's clear who her favorite was just by looking at who is the most adorable. But at 80 years old she will continue to insist that Bruce, the baby, was not her favorite and we all know he was.

COX: Now, Jeffrey, can we not – actually, I should ask Shawn of this. Shawn, can't we just be honest with our children and say I love you but, you know, you, so-and-so is my favorite? Is there a lot of damage in that for parents to do that?

BEAN: I think so. I think we're already seeing that. And I was, funny enough, after I read Jeffrey's piece, I talked to my wife about it because she's one of three siblings and I asked her who her mom's favorite was. And she answered immediately. She - you know, as if I were asking her political affiliation. She knew immediately who it was. And I do think that it - and you ask her, she'll never tell you, just like my mom would never say which of me and or my brother was the favorite.

So I don't think there's any research or information out there that can prove that there is a long-term damage, but I think we know from an emotional standpoint that, you know - and I think the cover of Time did a great job that if, you know, you're sitting around and my youngest gets the huge piece of cake every time and my oldest gets the, you know, gets a couple of peppermints, then I think they're going to start to figure it out. So I do think there is some emotional damage that could be inflicted. So I think best we can, I think it's probably important to keep that information under lock and key.

COX: There is some legitimacy to the argument, is there not, that firstborn tend to be favorite. I'll let you – any one of you can answer that. Isn't that a truism - the firstborn?

Absolutely. Firstborns tend to be favorite. And again, we are hardwired genetically to favor our firstborns, simply because reproduction is in itself a genetically narcissistic act. The whole goal is to have children and get those genes across and then place your best bets on the child who is the likeliest to leave the genes successfully in a third generation. That typically is seen as the firstborn.

KLUGER: Firstborns tend to be taller. They tend to be better nourished. They tend to have better vaccine compliance. Firstborns tend to get new computers, whereas the younger borns get the hand-me-downs, even if the younger borns, the later borns are better at technology than the older borns are. Time and time again we see it. You see it in colleges. There's still a preponderance of firstborns in the entering class of most universities.

COX: I've only got about 15 or 20 seconds left for this answer. But I want to direct it to you, Jolene. Do you think there's a difference - I know you don't have daughters - but do you think there's a difference when it comes to favoritism whether or not you have boys and girls?

IVEY: I'm sure that there is. But if you think about it, out of the thousands of people you deal with in your life, your children, your spouse, these are the most important people to you. These are your favorite people. So it kind of doesn't matter. When you start ranking them, they are really in the top, top, top percent.

COX: You get yourself in a lot of trouble, don't you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: As we all know as parents. Absolutely. Jolene Ivey, one of our regular moms and contributors, she was with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Jeffrey Kluger, senior editor at Time, author of the book "The Sibling Effect," he was with us from NPR's New York bureau. Shawn Bean is the executive editor of Parenting magazine. He joined us from WUCF in Orlando.

To read Jeffrey's piece in Time, or Shawn Bean's related post on parenting, you can visit our website. Just go to npr.org, click on Programs and then TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: And that's our program for today. Let me thank all of the guests that we had. I'm Tony Cox. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin will talk more with you tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.