Jill Smokler loves her three children equally, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a favorite.
At any given moment, she says, one of her little darlings is bound to be a little more likable than the others.
“Whenever I’ve had an infant, that one has been the favorite for several months because they’re so sweet and they’re so precious and they’re not talking back or getting into things they shouldn’t,” says Smokler who blogs at scarymommy.com and is the author of Motherhood Comes Naturally (and Other Vicious Lies) (Gallery Books).
“Sometimes the dog is my favorite child – not often, but sometimes she is.”
Parental favoritism has gotten a fresh look in the past few years, with books such as The Favorite Child by Ellen Weber Libby, a reality show ( Keeping Up With the Kardashians) and even TV commercials tackling the once-taboo topic. In a recent ad for Cars.com, parents create unnecessary drama by telling their petulant post-adolescent daughter, “Actually, we love your brother more than you.”
Research indicates that one-third to two-thirds of parents favor one or more children, and some informal estimates are much higher.
“The problem is not that parents have a favorite,” says Libby, a psychologist. “The problem is often when parents deny it because that makes everyone a little crazy. The second problem is when people hear the word ‘favorite,’ and they get a little nervous and defensive. Favoritism doesn’t have to be bad. It’s what we do with it that makes it disastrous or productive.”
The upside of having a favorite is that the child grows up feeling more confident, Libby says. But she cautions against singling out kids for special treatment, such as fewer chores or more lenient punishments, which can make them feel like they’re above the rules. Similarly, poorly handled favoritism can make it hard for a child to separate from a parent and develop his own independent identity, Libby says.
Research over several decades has linked parental favoritism (often defined as unequal treatment) to negative outcomes in childhood, including lower self-esteem and higher anxiety, according to a 2010 article in the Journal of Marriage and Family, co-authored by Purdue University sociology professor J. Jill Suitor.
Suitor who has studied the effects of parental favoritism in later life, says that parents of young children probably can’t avoid having preferences. But she says that making those feelings obvious can have a negative long-term effect on sibling bonds.
“We do know that perceptions of favoritism do seem to have a detrimental effect” on relationships among adult siblings, Suitor says. “There clearly is a measurable increase in tension and decrease in closeness.”
Smokler says she has different feelings toward a child who is going through an affectionate stage and one who is going through a difficult one, but she’s careful not to treat one better than the other.
Right now, she says, one of her children is definitely “the least likely to drive me to drink at 4 p.m.”