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Thoughts on Parental Favoritism

Originally published in July, 2010

A good friend recently asked if I have a favorite between our two boys. She wrote: "I know that you love them equally, but do you have a favorite?"

An interesting question to consider, and quite relevant to all of us who grew up with siblings where feelings of favoritism may have contributed to insecurity, depression, and other emotional challenges in adulthood.

Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist, reports that "it doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings."

Pillemer surveyed 275 Boston-area moms in their 60s and 70s. To measure favoritism, the moms where asked the following questions:

  1. To which child in your family do you feel the most emotional closeness?

  2. If you became ill or disabled and needed help on a day-to-day basis, which child in your family would be most likely to help you?

  3. With which child do you have the most disagreements or arguments?

Though Pillemer wasn't able to distill any concrete rules from survey results, he noted that "parents tend to prefer oldest or youngest children, and they gravitate toward those children who are more similar to them in personal characteristics and values."

He also noted that "being the favorite child has some serious drawbacks. The favored child can feel guilty, and he or she can experience negative relationships with the other siblings, who may be resentful. With older parents, favored children may be expected to provide more care and assistance for the parent, leading to stress."

As for me, I find it difficult to discern between the amount of love that I feel for our boys and which of them I favor. At 3 and 5 years of age, it seems natural that my love for them directly translates to how much I enjoy them, so I can honestly observe that I don't favor one over the other.

When I look at our older boy, I often think that I love him more than anything in this world. But in the same minute, if our youngest comes trotting along, I often look at him and feel the exact same thing, that I love him more than anything else in this world.

When our youngest was born, I distinctly remember feeling like all of the worries and feelings of wanting to protect that I carried for our firstborn were split into two perfectly equal halves, with each boy now occupying one half of the papa bear in my heart. I guess things haven't changed since that moment.

But I can definitely see how my relationships with Joshua and Noah may differ as they grow older. Life circumstances and individual interests may lead to my wife and me spending more time with one than the other. I hope this isn't the case. I hope that when they become independent adults, they eventually settle down wherever we are, if not under the same roof as one big clan, then on the same street, or at least in the same neighborhood.

As a son, I feel that my parents love me and my sisters equally. But I also feel that both my mom and dad favor me over my sisters. Part of this may be a Korean cultural thing, where parents from previous generations counted on the oldest or only son to care for them in their golden years. Part of it could be because I've done more than my sisters to help my parents become financially comfortable over the years. I'm not making any claims of being more capable or generous than my sisters; if anything, I feel that both of them have been years more mature than me since we were youngsters. It's just turned out that I've helped them more than my sisters have, and I do feel that this has translated to my folks feeling like they can rely on me a little more.

I also tend to be more emotionally open with my parents than my sisters are. It's natural for me to want to keep in regular touch with my folks and share my ups and downs. Both of my sisters, while caring and uber responsible, are more comfortable guarding the secrets of their hearts from those who find it natural to dispense all sorts of unsolicited advice.

Of course, the natural flip side to being close to anyone is greater opportunity to disagree on various life issues. But as a wise elder once told me, "only good friends fight." And I do believe that all in all, our disagreements have led to greater understanding and have made my folks and I closer.

So as far as me being favored over my sisters, I feel that the law of "you get what you put in" applies. It's as solid and natural a law of life as any.

And how do I know that despite favoring me slightly over my sisters, my parents love the three of us equally? Just from a thousand little things, like how, every six months or so, my mom clearly forgets that I exist when my older sister is able to get together with us for a couple of hours. Or whenever my mom jokingly reminds the three of us that we should expect to receive equal shares in their will (I'll be getting my vita-mix blender back). There's truth in jest, and as a human that bleeds like the next fellow, I have to admit that I've felt a twinge of incredulity when given such reminders, with the following dialogue running through my head:

I've sacrificed infinitely more than my sisters to be a dutiful son, and in the end, you want to take the little that you have and split it equally? Hey, it's not about the money, it's about wanting my efforts to be acknowledged. How about slapping me silly to get the taste of foolishness out of my mouth?

But then, I remember that it will be the exact same with our boys. Whatever I have, no matter how close I am with each of them, I will want them to share equally. Because I know with absolute certainty that my love for them will always be equal, even if one ends up disliking me.

And whenever I see that both of my sisters, though not so affectionate with me due to the Korean cultural thing (again), would give a pair of kidneys and then some for Joshua and Noah, their beloved nephews, I'm okay with getting nothing but my vita-mix blender back.

That, Yoo Jin, is my long-winded answer. :)


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Hi Dr Ben Kim

Cheers on the article.
I think to be honest, it's not possible to love your children equally. Especially as they get older and relationships change. Love is not something controllable and it's out of our hands.

However what is controllable and within our hands is fair and equal treatment of our children :)


Once again I am helped so much by your honesty about your feelings. Yes, "slap me silly" is appropriate for some of the thoughts that run through my head. My sisters have always joked that I was daddy's favorite, while my youngest sister was clearly mom's favorite. Though I've never felt the "favorite" as they express it. How odd!

When it comes to my own three sons I never want them to think I favor one over the other. All of them joke about being the favorite and we all enjoy the fun.

My mother favored my brother above me, her daughter, all of my life. Yet, today, I am the only one taking care of her. She has dementia and doesn't even remember she has a son. She also doesn't know I'm her daughter.

I often ask myself why I'm doing it...why am I taking care of her? I honestly can't answer that question. I do not know.

I wish I did.

Perhaps it's because of the kind of person YOU are...obviously, a caring and loving human being...rather than about her....

You're taking care of your mom because you have a good heart and you know she needs to be cared for. Maybe being the least favored one made you try harder, as it usually does, I'm sure.
Maybe it appeared that your mother favored your brother because he was the weaker child and you were strong. She felt that he needed more attention than you did, which makes it so very hard for you, but I'm sure your mother didn't do it intentionally to hurt you.
Be proud of yourself and if it gets to be too much for you, find someone to take care of your mother...and don't feel guilty about doing that. I'm almost 65 and I have told both my daughters that I don't want to be a burden to them and if I don't know who they are to please find someone to take care of me.
Take care of yourself...if you don't you can't take care of anyone else.
God Bless You

I don't think that there is an easy answer to this. We are taking care of my mother in law, she has alzheimers. She was nasty to me for over forty years. Guess who is taking care of her. Right my husband and I. I had to first forgive her (not forget) and then do the right thing.The right thing is not always the easy thing. We will be able to live with our self when this is over. Will the others be able to as well? I hope this is of help for you. God Bless

How insightful you are! I was thoroughly impressed with your writing and deep understanding of this subject. Thank you for your wonderfully candid remarks.
I can totally relate to how you are feeling and your relationship with your sons. As I have now 2 grown sons, whom I love very deeply, and yet I know I feel connected more closely to my younger son. He is the more open of the 2, and, much like yourself, more emotionally available. So, as your sons grow, you may find this out for yourself. What a wonderful learning experience being a parent is! It helps
us understand the past and look forward to the future, all the while being right in the present moment.

There's 5 kids on our family. 4 elders are girls and then finally a boy. The first 3 girls are a year apart. My older sister always hated the 3d sister and always claimed she was my father's favorite. There was a 3 year gap before another sister and my brother was born. Because of the 3 year gap the 3d sister was the baby the longest. Till this day my older sister has hated her. My older sister is 62 years old. Out of all of us she is the most fragile health wise. Twenty one years after my father died she was still talking about the 3d sister being his favorite.

Dear Dr. Kim,
I read your recent article, and felt I needed to reply. I am 63, and my sister is 57. When I reached 21, I moved across country, whereas my sister remained in town. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I moved back , and built a home close to my mom and dad. It wasn't until I moved back that I felt this twinge of resentment towards my sister. She and my mom are clones in many way. If mom agrees with someone, it'll always be my sister. I think she feels my sister "understands" her more.
In the last 15 years, I've definitely seen my mom and dad almost daily. My sister, who lives 5 miles away, may see them once a week, and, then, I think they think" she's company. And, it's not so much anything they've said, but the feelings I get. And, to be honest,like you, I've done more for my parents than my sister, but I KNOW when my mom gets older, she'd prefer my sister to take care of her. (My dad died last year)And, though I take my mom to all her doctor appointments, and try to help her in any way I can,I know my sister is her favorite. So, I've slowly come to accept it, and love my mom for who she is. Sincerely, Bea

Many psychologists call it a "correctness of fit" - basically if a child is more appealing than the other. One child may be more charming, funny or sweet than the other, fitting in with the parents expectations. As a child grows up the value system may be totally different, adding more issues to the situation. But a child's character or personality type is closely hinged to how a child relates to a parent. It is undisputed in psychology. If you have both parents whom you were not close to and can't relate to either of them for example then you will be quite partisan when you grow up, similarly if you were rejected you may experience a melancholic disposition. Basically it is all about the parental love and how it is expressed.

This article sure brings a lump to my throat! A topic you seldom see aired. About 15 yrs. ago I did read a magazine article on this subject, telling us that yes, parental favortism does exist and if it is a hurt that won't go away, we need to try and accept it for what it is to help heal that hurt. We don't have to feel alone if that is of some comfort, as it happens to many. Just as you say, too, the favored child (my older daughter was favored by my mom over her two sisters)can feel hurt(she/he was not responsible), yet the two younger siblings show resentment toward her at times (this is easing as they all are maturing more, thank goodness). Being the third (female)child of four has been difficult for me. Child psychologists say it is often hard for the third child to feel loved. During school yrs. mom always said 'do what your sister does'. My baby brother was favored also, as well as my brother one yr older than me! My father showed a hint of liking me and I guess this kept me going! Adding to my problem was that my parents did not show affection, praise or compliment. They were good people and saw we had what we needed, were strict and kind. I realize this pain firsthand and was mindful of it while raising my 3 daughters-it has not seemed to be a problem among them-hopefully through my own pain, then becoming aware, I was able to break that pattern-I have actually prayed about it and still do. I try hard not to make a differince among them! Thank you Dr Kim for another timely topic.

Beautifully captured thoughts!
We are two sisters and feel absolutely equal to our parents. Both of us sisters live in America whereas our parents are in India. Parents may have more liking for one, but by the end of it they are equally transparent, loving, indulgent and emotionally involved with both of us.
My husband has a sister and they both share an extremely uncomfortable relationship. My mother in law loves to give, help, understand the daughter better than the son. After his wedding, she feels she has lost a son. On one hand she want to step into the 21st century by dividing her assets to both kids but when it comes to providing for her, catering to her travel, gifts she wants to buy, medical care and expenses, she insists that the daughter has no role to play. She is very concerned about my husband's sister's career, her living standard and does not at all relate to us. As a result of which, the siblings suffer. They don't communicate. They don't feel for each other and nothing seems to help the relationship.
I feel so miserably helpless. But I surely feel my mother in law could see things a little better and leave behind better relationships after her.

Wow, this article really hit a nerve. I'm the fourth of 5 children. The third girl out of four. I've worked hard over the years to get my mother's approval. But never managed to get it. My mother has always favored my baby sister. She has no plans to will her children equally, but plans to give it all to my younger sister, because she "needs it the most". At times I have felt resentful toward my younger sister and anger towards my mother. But also sad and guilty because I never could live up to my mother's expectations. Whatever they might have been.

Try being the only daughter. Mom had 5 kids in 7 years. My twin sister died at birth and I was the 2nd oldest child.
Dad didn't want ANY of us. He said we were "a bother" and "in the way." We could never go to him for a problem or question. He said, "Go away," "Leave me alone," "Shut up," "Be still," "Be quiet," "Don't bother me," "If I want you I'll call you," among other things.
Mom, the breadwinner, was always too tired or too busy for me. But not for my brothers. She would clean their room and change their linens. When I asked why not mine too, she said, "They're boys. You're a girl and you're supposed to help your mother." They got allowances. It was supposed to be a secret, but my brother spilled the beans one day. When I asked why Mom said "because they need money to do stuff with their friends." I asked if I could have an allowance to do stuff with my friends, Mom laughed and said, "What friends?" I said, "Maybe if I had money to do stuff, I would have friends too." She laughed again and said, "No. You'd just get into trouble."
They got to drive the family cars, but the only places I could go were visiting Grandma P (Mom's mother) or the store. Not church, not school, nowhere.
Grandma H (Dad's mother)lived 2 1/2 blocks away. When I went to see her alone, she was very loving and couldn't offer enough food. BUT if any of my brothers also went, she all but completely ignored me.
To avoid history repeating itself, I deliberately only had 1 child so that I would not be guilty of favoritism. I am 55 and still struggle with self-esteem. It is comforting to know that I was/am not alone.


I can really relate to how you feel. I too was ostracized by my parents for being gay. We are 7 all in all, and besides one brother, I was the only one who finishes college and a post graduate course. All my brothers and sisters did not finish their studies despite being given all the luxuries in life and now they are squandering the family fortune. One reason I can think of the discrimination is the fact that I'm Gay.

Now my Mom turned to me to stop the squandering. Of course I am helping her but I am also reminding her that this is partly their fault as a Parent (My Dad died recently). As they say, the sins of the past should not be forgotten.

My only advise to you is to make them realized their shortcomings but also show them that despite everything, you will help them if they asked for it.

Dear Dr. Kim,

My adopted brother has MS and is the most bitter, angry person I know. He insists that our parents favored me, the biological child.

From my perspective, this is slander of our parents. He made many poor choices and engaged in behaviors that disappointed our parents, but so did our older sister who also is a biological child. My point is that when a child who was raised by loving parents chooses to blame the parents for his or her own self-inflicted problems, failures, and unhappiness, that DOES NOT mean the parents favored one child over the other.

I believe his chronic anger (for which he will not take responsiblity nor seek professional help) must have some deliterious affect on his health. But it has nothing to do with our parents. (Perhaps his rage is about the sperm and egg donors who abandoned him and he takes it out on the parents who wanted him and gave him every advantage in life.) If anything, I could argue they loved him more -- but I won't go there.

Caring for parents is not a social obligation; it is an act necessary for the survival of our race. Parents are the actual gold mines most fortunate people exist with or near to. Caring for them would obviously lead to a more civilized world with healthier and longer living people. The most important constituents of our eco system are our parents. Therefore ensure that they are prevented as much as could be possible from being exposed to any emotionally and/or physically dangerous situations...

All parents must be loved and hugged daily. If possible they must be provided with whatever they desire. Remember, there is and could be no life without parents. At birth, it was pure instinct that made me realize of God’s presence when I sensed the nearness of my parents.
Keep them as safe as you can for they are the greatest gift you have in this life and the hereafter.