Do parents really love all their children equally? No, but…

 

But you can love each child in different ways – and value each child equally.

 

It can be difficult to acknowledge that we have a favourite child. We don’t set out to have a favourite – but it happens to most of us, and when we realize this we can take steps to counter any favouritism or injustice in our actions towards them. Children are very sensitive to your emotions and very vulnerable to any perceived favouritism.

 

You may say that you do love all of your children equally – but in different ways and at different times. After all, no two children are identical. Each one has their own personality, their strengths, and their weaknesses. We will explore how this may be and also look at ways to ensure that all your children feel valued and loved.

 

Why can one child grab our heart while another does not?

Children differ in age, temperament and they also change as they grow. So your favourite child may change with the passage of time. Let go of your guilt and enjoy each child as they grow, their childhood passes all too fast.

One child might be just like his father – and if the mother loves the father then she will be naturally attracted to this child. He may have his smile or his cheeky way of waving, or his hair colouring. Or perhaps he favours his mother – and she might find this enormously attractive – or maybe they are too alike and argue all the time!

Some people love babies, others prefer toddlers – and yes, some parents prefer teens! Although you love your child through every age there are perhaps some times when it is easier to love him or her even more. But as one parent said, “every age is the best age as you come to it”. So, your children may take it in turn to be your favourite, and hopefully never know it.

As children grow and explore the world they will develop their own interests. Maybe you too are mad about cars or crazy about tiddly-winks. Enjoying a shared interest not only builds up a great relationship but you might find it more relaxing or more stimulating when you spend time with the child whose interests you share.

The order of birth might influence you. According to research published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2005, 70% of fathers and 74% of mothers treated one child preferentially. [1] They studied 384 families where the children had birthdays within four years of each other. The younger siblings’ opinion of their self-worth was related to how they much thought their parents valued them. This self-confidence or lack of it can be carried into adult life with far-reaching effects.

 

How to prevent your children from thinking that they are the least loved?

One on One

No matter how busy you are, you must make some “one on one time” for each child. Put aside a few minutes every day for each child. It needn’t be for long but it does need to be reliable and something your child can look forward to. It might mean you have to stand in the cold and cheer your kid playing football, it might mean chatting about space, admiring their insect collection, or baking a cake, but whatever you decide it must be done with good grace and a genuine interest. It’s a very precious time for you as well as for your child.

If you plan a special “date “with your child it can either be a surprise – or let the child choose how to spend that valuable time with you. Of course, if you date one child you must date the others equally. But try to spend a few minutes every day with each child. They may have something important to get off their chest and those few minutes may be very important to them.

It’s worth checking in with yourself from time to time. “Am I spending too much time with Alice and ignoring Sheila?” Sometimes, the answer might surprise you.

Praise

Be ready to praise your child – or give a secret smile or a wink. Make sure you do the same for each of your children at the right time – and if one is particularly difficult, then it’s often even more important to find something good you can say.

It’s best to praise the activity rather than the person. Saying “I loved the way Johnny helped granny with her shopping,” is better than “Johnny is such a helpful boy,” which implies that the other child is not.

It’s not a great idea to keep singling out one child either to praise or condemn. And comparing one child to another can be downright cruel. It’s so important to bolster your child’s self-esteem if they seem to be failing. After all, there is no failure – only feedback – so make it positive!

“It’s not fair!”

How many times have you heard this? Children are very much aware of unfairness and injustice. If you reward one child for something, then you must give the same reward (or similar) to another child for the same amount of effort. Obviously, your expectations must be age-appropriate – but the fairness principle holds true – and children remember every time.

Sometimes you can see potential problems ahead – so plan for them! Make sure all your children have something they like to do with them. Try to avoid situations where one child’s negative actions can affect other members of your family. Give the potential troublemaker something they like to do to take with them.  

The child who bullies his siblings

You may need to intercede when you find that one child is bullying another. Talk privately to the bully. Find out why he is doing it and make it clear that you expect better. Families should support each other, and that includes the kids.

Try not to make your child feel guilty – he may have issues he needs to explore with your help and guidance. You can ask him how he thinks the other child felt and help him to understand how his behaviour impacts on other people. Maybe you can find a way that he or she can help to repair the damage – they will often feel relieved when they can make amends without feeling humiliated.

Assigning jobs

Everyone needs to feel wanted and valued. Every child should have some sort of family job which he is responsible for – but it must be age-appropriate, and not onerous. Being included is part of belonging to the family. But again, when you assign jobs do be very careful not to favour one child above another -it will be noticed and can build up resentment.

They should learn to pick up after themselves and keep their own space reasonably tidy. No one should have to go around rescuing odd socks and picking up sweet wrappers. Other simple jobs like being responsible for clearing the table after dinner or sweeping the yard are examples of jobs your kids can feel a sense of pride in doing well and which contribute to your family’s comfort.

When your child questions your love

This can make your heart sink! But it happens in the best-run families. It’s tempting to say it’s not true, but that’s not always believable to the child.

You might respond by pointing out the age difference, “Lenny is older than you which is why I let him go to the shop by himself, when you are older, you will go too.” Or you could point out that since “Lenny does his homework without making a fuss, so it gives him more time to go out and play.”

Sometimes you have to agree that since you and Lenny are both mad keen on exploring old castles it makes sense to spend time together doing that – but you could invite them along, too. You would need to tell them that you would love to spend time doing something they like as well, and arrange a time there and then. And never, ever let them down!

It’s vital to stress to the child that you love them all, maybe in different ways, but equally. They need to hear that you understand their concern, but that they are loved just as much as the other children.

Other adults

Sometimes another adult will show a preference for one child or another. It might be that an inquisitive child who tends to break things is not as welcome as the less destructive child or it might just a case of personal preference. You need to speak to the other adult and make sure they are fair.

You may need to suggest an activity your kids will enjoy as something your partner can do. In the case of a grandparent, a gentle request may be sufficient – but if they continue to favour one child at the expense of the other, then you may have to limit the time they can spend with them.  

Family fun nights

This can be something you all enjoy. Time to spend with each other. Friday night could be pizza and film night for example. Or it might mean that on Sundays you all pile into the car and take a picnic somewhere once a month. Whatever you decide let it be a free and easy time – your kids might help you choose the activity.

It also helps to encourage kids to include one another in their activities, and not to leave someone out. (Of course, there are times when little sister is NOT welcome, nor should she be!)

When to seek professional help

Sometimes we find that our feelings for one child don’t seem right or just. It’s time to seek professional help before it becomes obvious to other people – including your child. A child who thinks they are less worthy of your love can take this low self-esteem into their adult life with damaging consequences. You cannot allow this to happen.

Conclusion

Love suggests a feeling of tenderness, a strong affection, and loyalty but favouritism implies unfair singling out for praise or blame.

Families are the basis of our society and a healthy family life is essential to our well-being. Fairness and justice must be seen to be done. It’s not wrong to love one child more than the other – but it is wrong to show favouritism. Our favourite child may change as they grow older, have bad days, or enjoy new activities. While you can acknowledge that you love one child more than another, you can also make certain that all your children feel equally loved.

 

Reference

[1] Shebloski B, Conger KJ, Widaman KF. Reciprocal links among differential parenting, perceived partiality, and self-worth: a three-wave longitudinal studyJournal of Family Psychology. 2005;19(4):633-642. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.19.4.633.