I was special for seven years.
In fact, for the first two years of my life my feet rarely touched the ground. My parents and two elder siblings carried me around like an over-sized doll and so there was no need to walk. Finally my mother took me to the doctor worried that my legs were not developing, only to be told that I would walk when people stopped toting me around.
Everything changed with the birth of my sister in 1969. The change of status was instantaneous. Once
last born was now merely third-born. My sister was literally a golden child, a blonde beauty like Mum. The rest of us were dark, courtesy of Dad. My sister and Mum made a natural set.
My parents would never admit it but I always believed she was their favourite. It was understandable. By the time she was 11, we were all moving out of home and she had our parents’ undivided attention.
But as I write this story, I realise how much I resent her special status with our parents. We haven’t spoken for the past two years over some trivial issue but it’s clear to me that the root cause of our falling-out is my perception of favouritism. How depressing that, at 51 and with my own family, I am still seeking the favour of my parents. To be so needy feels pathetic and disempowering.
Playing favourites is an enduring taboo in child rearing. As parents, we fear that letting one child know they are more special than the rest will lead to disaster and dysfunction. We all hope that we love our kids equally and unconditionally when in fact in almost all families there are favourites.
Ellen Libby, American author of The Favorite Child, writes that a group of students at Stanford University debated with parents (not their own) the existence of favouritism in families.
“The students agreed that favouritism existed in all their families and that they knew instinctively which
siblings were favoured. But, because the students felt secure in their parents’ love, they felt no resentment and easily accepted their family dynamics,” Dr Libby wrote.
There was no shortage of love in our family, let’s be clear about that. But maybe my short-lived favourite status created a powerful sense of entitlement.
Dr Libby says that while unconditional love offers children security, it does not earn them special privileges. “In contrast, favouritism usually does not offer children security and commonly does earn them special privileges,” she writes.
“Favourite children are more likely to get what they want and grow up feeling entitled, in exchange for making parents feel good about themselves.
“Favourite children often are not held accountable for their behaviours and face minimal or inconsistent consequences.
“The less favouritism rotates among children in families, the more likely favourite children are to grow up feeling the benefits of confidence and the risks of believing that the rules don’t apply to them.”
So, being the favourite child might also carry some negative consequences.Casting around my friends, I was
surprised at how many are still carrying baggage about how favouritism affected their lives.
“I was the oldest of three, my brother in the middle and my sister followed,” says “Robert”, 49.
“I remember clearly my mother saying to her friends when I was about nine years old, while cuddling my brother, that
he was the favourite. I then ran and told my sister what I had heard, but I never told Mum that I overheard her make this comment.” From that point on, Robert felt he was competing with his brother for his mother’s attention. “I
feel my brother knew he was the favourite. He was the cheeky charmer that got away with all he could — and good luck to him, there were no grudges attached. My sister and I just seemed to accept it.”
Robert’s mother died when he was 12 and his brother nine without ever resolving the disparity.
“Interestingly, I feel Mum’s death affected my brother, the favourite, more than the rest of us. And there is something still apparent nearly 40 years later,” he says.
The bias her mother showed towards one child created a rift in Candace’s family that exists to this day.
“My mother had six children, her second last one, my brother, is the only child out of all of us she truly loves, believes in or
would do anything for. And he makes sure that’s how it will remain,” she says.
“Consequently she now only has one child who wants anything to do with her and he has no siblings who bother with him.”
Likewise “Richard’s” family is a battlefield. “My two gross, fat sisters could, and did, manipulate
my Dad into anything they desired, while I would wear plastic sandals in winter.”
Richard turned into a bad boy, eventually serving time in jail. When he came out, he tried hard to win back his parents’ favour. Nothing worked and today, at nearly 60, Richard finds himself on the outer with his family.
“I find it hard to forgive and even understand. I know my family is displaced and dysfunctional and we each have skeletons to hide but it’s tough still even at my age to accept that I was and am still so rejected.”
Eve found herself between two favoured siblings.
“My brother was my mother’s favourite because he was the only boy. My sister was my father’s favourite because she was
academically bright.” Eve is now mother to two boys and they both think she has a favourite, which she denies. “I would never put my children through what I went through as a non-favourite,” she says.
Candace has also now got two sons and while she tries to avoid playing favourites, she admits that one annoys
her “less than the other at any given time”.
It is entirely reasonable that parents should have their favourite children. We select our friends on the basis
of compatibility of our personalities, so why would certain traits in our kids not resonate with us more than others?
At 16, my daughter knows how to manipulate me emotionally down to a T. She knows I dote on her, while her elder
brother, at 21, is more independent, less needy.
I am conscious of the fact I need to be a parent to my children, not a friend. There have to be boundaries,
and a balancing of what one child gets against the other. I would hate for my history with my sister to repeat itself in my kids. Our rivalry means that we are forever locked into a sibling hierarchy.
This is a peculiarly First World sort of problem. It speaks of nuclear families where children rely solely on their parents for their fate.
It’s time to get over this, needless to say. As my friend Olly says: “Leave it behind and look to the future, not the past. You
can’t change it.”
He’s right but I can’t help but feel that Olly must have been the apple of his parents’ eye, dammit.