Dear parents of multiple children, please stop playing ‘favorites’
Though most parents who have multiple children— when asked which of their children is their ‘favorite’ — will likely say, “Oh, I don’t have a favorite child,” it is very possible that some (most?) of them are lying. In families of two or more kids there is almost always that one kid who stands out for some reason or another, who reflects what the parent sees in her- or himself, perhaps who will follow the unfulfilled dreams of the parent (who is looking to achieve said dreams through their child). Birth order studies show that the first child is “the leader” and subsequent children are peace makers, family uniters, etc., and often it is the “leader” (who isn’t necessarily the first-born) who is the “favorite.” One kid just “happens” to be the overachiever, and therefore stands out from the crowd … and mom and/or dad praises, brags about, and highlights that kids talents/ambition/what-have-you to all who will listen … including the other children.
For this reason, I’m asking — no, begging — parents of multiple children: If you become aware that you are praising one child way more than the others, giving disproportionate attention to one child, and even grooming one kid for a career you never quite attained because life sent you down a different path…please stop making your ‘favoritism’ toward that child obvious to everyone. It not only stands to hurt your other children but possibly also hurts the favored one (because of lofty expectations or the pressure on that child to be “perfect” might actually backfire). Better yet, learn to find the good qualities, talents and ambitions of all your children and try your best to value each of them according to their unique individualism … and not just because your youngest child (for example) aspires to the career you didn’t get (choose) to undertake. Such as a doctor. A scientist. Or an international journalist.
Sadly, I am all too aware that some children don’t feel very valued by their parents, who have either don’t have the time or attention to see the shining stars that their kids are. Either parents don’t see these good attributes in their kids or they don’t take the time to notice, and worse yet, encourage and guide their kids toward a life path according to their (the kids’ not the parents’) wants, needs, ambitions and personalities. Over my two-plus decades of parenting I’ve met more than a few of my son’s friends to whom I said, “Everyone has a talent, something he or she does really well” and heard them reply, “Not me. I don’t have any special talents.” I would feel sadness for these young people and reassure them — since apparently there were few (if any) other people in their lives who were encouraging their good aspects/abilities — that “yes you do!! You just haven’t found yet what it is that you’re really good at (or noone has pointed out your special ability to you). But you will.”
My hope is that some of my son’s friends went into the world and eventually found their bright spots, a special gift, and were spurred on to chase a great career as a result. Maybe these kids moved away from the small town where I live, went to a bigger city and became surrounded by people (their “tribe”) who noticed, encouraged and nurtured their talents and dreams. Though I’m technically not directing my son’s life anymore (actually I never was a super-controlling mother, so I was more like his biggest cheerleader), I have quite a (growing) tribe of great nieces and one great nephew in whom I hope to be planting little seeds of inspiration through my encouragement of their interests and curiosities about the world. My mentoring job of the younger generation thus continues. Hopefully they learn their special gifts and use them toward a more rewarding life as adults.
Therefore as I said earlier, those of you who have two or more kids, I hope you all are taking the time to recognize each child’s uniqueness and contributions to your life, and the lives of others around them. While I agree in appropriate discipline, I am also a huge advocate of positive parenting, which includes praising the talents and such of children, reframing in a more positive way the words you use with them (even when delivering not-so-positive words, such as words about the consequences of their negative actions) and hopefully helping parents avoid “playing favorites” among their kids. Because trust me, it isn’t fair to your children and you don’t want to go down that road.
I say this because — after decades of living and studying psychology, both in college and through my casual reading — I am quite positive that therapists’ couches are full of people who weren’t “the favorite” of the family. Because when there is a favorite child, there are the kid(s) who aren’t praised, built up, encouraged, and instead are put down, belittled and made to feel “less than” as a result. Some parents have a favorite and it is no secret to anyone who can hear or see, because that kid shines in the light of the parent’s adoration. In the meantime, the “unfavorites” may be withering in the shade. For example, some parents do the comparison thing: “Why can’t you get straight A’s like your sister?” Or “why do you always have to dress so sloppily? Why can’t you dress all pretty and neatly like your sister.” Or “Jiminy just doesn’t have the sports talents/academic prowess that his brother has.” Lines like these, when heard by a child, can cut deeply into one’s psyche, their hurtful aftereffects lasting possibly decades after the person first heard these unhelpful words out of the mouths of their elders.
Thus, those non-favorite former kids are quite possibly the ones who are filling the waiting room at mental health facilities, rehashing family dynamics and relationships with therapists, and attempting to salvage poor self esteem which is one possible result of being an “other” (as opposed to a favorite) child. These people, besides having poor self esteem (and quite possibly a string of poor life decisions which sometimes results when people have a not-very-good opinion of themselves), also may have inferiority complexes … or worse yet, serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety disorder. Most therapists will undoubtedly agree with me on this point. “Watch your words, they become thoughts,” as the meme says. And those words/thoughts can and will do damage. Be aware.
Hopefully I’ve given some of you who are actively raising young people to maybe step up your game a bit and notice the good/talents/unique abilities and offer lots of praise and encouragement of the same. Remember some of the possibly sad end results of negative reinforcement, such as developing mental health issues, and also remember that your words DO very much matter to your youngsters: choose them wisely, thoughfully, and be mindful of their possible impacts on your children. And please, please, stop elevating one kid to the pedestal of favoritism; see ALL your kids as “gifts” to be treasured … and let them know that they are valued and useful and talented and have good to contribute to the world. Food for thought.