Sitting in Starbuck’s the other day, waiting for my car to be serviced, I sat next to a mom who shared a “dirty little parenting secret.” Her kids, and she and her husband, have “favorites.” She gets along better with their younger child while her husband gets along better with the older child. I believe that this is natural, ubiquitous, and something most parents are ashamed to admit.
The only thing to be ashamed about is if one’s actions show overt favoritism. I am a firm believer that actions speak louder than words, though I know some religions believe that what is in one’s heart is what matters most. I strongly disagree with that philosophy and believe that what is in our hearts or minds only matters if we act on it. We all have occasional thoughts of doing something that we shouldn’t. When we hold those in check, we’re being responsible.
Parents would not be human if they didn’t relate to the child that more mirrored themselves, their personality, their likes and dislikes, etc. Similarly, parent may like one or another child at different times in their lives, due to behavior, interests, temperament, etc. And, let’s face it; we all know genetics don’t mean clones, as each child can be so different in looks and personality.
My boys are so different in just about every characteristic. My older son mirrored me, almost to a “T” while my younger one was more like his mother. However, for me, while I recognized and occasionally felt frustrated by this difference, I kept it inside and scrupulously avoided favoring one over the other.
Sadly, their mother (now my ex) copied her own family’s poor behavior and favored our youngest son. This became exacerbated during our separation and divorce, creating different but equally troubling problems for the boys and their feelings of security, safety, and parental love. My oldest responded with anger, while my younger son chose the “pleaser” route, never wanting to rock the boat.
I actually found myself working extra hard to overcompensate for her behavior. I questioned every punishment, every granted privilege, and many other parenting choices with the analysis of a judge, weighing the pros and cons to excess. In fact, I know there were times that I may have actually gone overboard in this regard, by punishing one too severely and letting the other off too easy.
Yet, my younger son, having grown up witnessing this horrible prejudice from his mother, was overly sensitive to anytime he felt I might have favored his brother, thinking the reverse would happen with him. Yet he knows, as the more cooperative child, the one who always does better in school, that his brother receives far more consequences than he does.
The Starbucks mom and I discussed this and agreed that our best efforts at compensating and not playing favorites might not be how the children experience it. This is like the foolish sexual harassment laws in which the perception of the “harassed” is the sole determinant of guilt. The same may be true with our children and their perception of our behavior and possible favoritism.
In this case, I have to side with the child’s perception and argue for extra vigilance on the part of parents. If David feels I’m favoring his older brother, I must look hard and deep at my actions rather than just be defensive. Unlike the aforementioned sexual harassment laws, I do believe that the child’s perception should be considered more seriously than a parent’s intentions.
This also applies to our interactions with our spouses. When my wife says, “You hurt my feelings,” the female mantra and my wife’s mantra, I often reflexively say, “No, I didn’t.” And, naturally, she immediately charges that I can’t possibly know her feelings. Of course, she’s correct, no matter how hard I try to defend my actions. This is exactly the same with our children on favoritism matters. My younger son is probably extra attuned to it, on the lookout for it, and may often be projecting an inaccuracy.
It doesn’t matter. I have to work that much harder to assure him that he stands in equal status with his brother. I know he does in my heart, but that isn’t always enough. As stated earlier, it’s our actions that matter most.
Obviously, the same may apply in the other direction. A child will naturally often prefer one parent over another due to treatment related to discipline, fun, amount of time together, etc. That is why there is the stereotype of the weekend parent being the “good guy” who only takes the children on fun play dates, buys them things, and is otherwise a “yes” parent.
This is a sad situation when it occurs, but I believe it’s incumbent on the primary parent to hold the line and retain standards of behavior and rules. Remember that most children know the difference, ultimately, between the “fun” parent and the “real” parent who puts in all the time, rain or shine, sick or healthy, good times and bad. After all, that is what parenting is all about.