We DON’T love all our children the same.
What a ghastly admission! We flinch from confronting this truth. Good parents are supposed to be grow-lights, beaming our radiating love with uniformity upon all offspring within its casting radius. We should bestow a kind of parental one-size-fits-all indiscriminant love. At the very least, we should SAY we love each child exactly the same, especially if we really don’t, then promptly NOT look too closely at the countervailing facts.
But then we hear ourselves say: “HE’s the challenging one; SHE’s the easy one;” or “if I’d had my third child first, we’d only have one child…” or “she’s JUST like my EX!” (And often the kids are standing right there hearing it all...)
Of course we cannot love two children exactly “the same” for the obvious reason that no two children are the same, nor, indeed, are parent-child combinations the same. Consider all the differing variables in the formula of parent-child relations:
1) Children come loaded with unique temperaments, endowments and challenges.
2) And so do we parents.
3) Parents come with “baggage” from their own family histories, gender, birth order, sibling constellation, family role, scarring experiences etc.
4) Each birth context for each child makes for differing formative environments even with the same parents: e.g. work and health conditions, economic challenges, marital stability, moves, life crises and losses, etc.
Now consider the dizzying array of possible combinations among the above variables as they interact in each parent-child relationship. As you’ve no doubt observed, unfortunate parent-child-combinations do come into being; e.g the blunt coarse athletic dad who barely disguises his disappointment in his bookish, musical, exercise-allergic son; the quiet, introverted orderly mom who is appalled by her wild, high-decible, daughter. If that dad has a second son who is an athletic superstar, and that mom has a prim goody-two-shoes second daughter, then there’s the makings of flagrant favoritism, if the parents don’t pay close attention to and correct imbalances.
Time Magazine’s cover story “Why Mom Liked You Best; The Science of Favoritism” 10/2/11 presents favoritism as unavoidable and damaging to all siblings. (Unfavored kids suffer depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem while favored kids suffer guilt and falsely elevated self-worth that gets dashed in the real world.) Yet all that is recommended for this corrosive family inevitability is denial, “benign lying,” and “preserving the emotional pretext” that parents love their kids the same.
Destructive and ubiquitous as it is, why in the world wouldn’t we parents confront favoritism head on and combat its ill-effects? In my view, avoiding looking at these truths is the single greatest disservice we can do to ourselves and to our children. Why? Because kids, being Geiger counters for truth, always pick up on realities parents try to deny. So they know parents favor one sibling, AND that they’re not SUPPOSED to know or talk about it, leaving the truth to its poisonous effects like a buried splinter that gets infected.
And denying and averting ones eyes from emotional truths only serves to intensify favoritism’s damaging inequalities all the more. How? There is a physics-like law of psychology; the more we deny and push away an unsettling truth, the more we empower it. By failing to turn our full focus to how we relate to and love each child differently, we act out of reflex not reflection. What begins as a tendency goes 1) unexamined due to our “denial,” hence 2) unquestioned, thereby 3) unchallenged and therefore 4) even more entrenched, over time.
Like an ever-flowing river carving a crevasse, we get locked into fixed, constricting patterns of viewing and relating to our children. How? Our positively or negatively tinged parental approach evokes a matching positive or negative reaction from each child. For example, a parent says “let’s see if you’re capable of not being selfish and greedy today,- share your candy with your brothers and sisters!” Generosity of spirit is hardly cultivated when sharing is extorted in this shaming way. A sure way to convert your teen into a delinquent is to tell him that you already see him as a delinquent: “Sure, you SAY you’re going over to hang out with Sam, but I’m no fool. You’re heading out to get high aren’t you?! Don’t lie!” Many a teen figures “I might as well go do what they’re accusing me of already doing! I’m facing the charge,-- might as well do the crime…” Reductionistic labels get ascribed and, just as prophecies become self-fulfilling, so “children become what you tell them they are.”
Not all parents struggle with entrenched favoritism. Also, it is common and benign when intensities of parent-child bonds shift with children’s varying developmental phases and circumstances. But when favoritism is calcified, we parents inadvertently diminish our children’s core sense of worthiness, sometimes lastingly.
Can we “own” our disowned parental preferences, so we don’t lock in stone our two dimensional views of our children? Rather than defaulting to disclaimed favoritism, with a hierarchy of loving one child more than another, can we instead aim to love our children differently but equally fiercely?— the maximum intensity but different breeds of love cultivated out of the differing soils of each parent-child bond? (E.g. “I love you each the best way I know how; -- my heart’s filled to overflowing with love for each one of you.”)
Sometimes, that’s far easier said than done, though. Take Melinda, mom of three girls. She describes her oldest and youngest as easy going, sociable and multiply talented while her middle daughter is burdened by learning and attention challenges, engages awkwardly with others, and needs much extra attention. Melinda hates admitting it, but she finds her middle daughter so depleting and frustrating that she finds herself avoiding being with her, just like her peers at school do.
Here’s the honest truth. Some kids are harder to love than others. Some are less gratifying, more challenging, less endearing, more labor-intensive. But hey, folks, some of us parents are no bargain either! Some of us are total ogres; harsh, impatient and joyless with the very kids who most need gentle, compassionate playful parents. They try their best to love us the best they can no matter what we’re like; we’re beholden to do the same in turn.
Kids who feel selectively deprived of the very adoration they see their siblings receive, get the message that they are defective or unlovable. And --guess what?—they behave accordingly, because, as mentioned above, they become what we tell them they are. The more Melinda avoids her middle daughter out of aversion to her neediness, the more her daughter’s unattended needs grow, which makes her clamor for even more assistance and become even more the irritating child Melinda views her to be. In this way, Melinda’s avoidance of addressing her favoritism only magnifies and compounds the damaging imbalance rather than eliminating it.
This harsh reality is painful for us to examine, which is precisely why it’s swept under the carpet of parental consciousness. But it is crucial to look at because, much as we might wish it were otherwise, “maintaining the emotional pretext” of loving all one’s children equally and “benign lying” only make the damage more malignant. Don't get me wrong; I am NOT saying we should speak with blunt honesty to our kids about our favoritism. I AM saying that when favoritism exists, we should fake it 'til we make it,--but DO try to MAKE it! Innumerable children emerge from childhood scarred by the brand of “the loser” of the family, such that no matter how their lives unfold, they harbor an inner unyielding conviction of intrinsic unworthiness. Time Magazine notes that Charles Dickens never overcame the anguish and shame of being his parents’ “least favored child:” “my whole nature was so penetrated by the grief and humiliation that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I…wander desolate back to that time in my life.(p.48)”
If we have one job as parents, it is, very simply, to love our children well. What does that mean exactly? (This is the single most profoundly important and vexing question of parenthood, I think.) Whatever the answer, it must include 1) trying our best to know who and how each child is, 2) conveying through individually tailored, kindly deeds, words and gestures that we cherish them; 3) calling up our very best, highest selves in parenting, which in turn enables our 4) coaxing out the very best and highest selves in our children and 5) always monitoring and repairing impasses in each parent-child relationship that interfere with open ease of communication.
Favoring one child over another often interferes with our loving each of our children our level best. Also, we don’t feel good about ourselves as parents when we catch ourselves short-changing one child of our affectionate attentions. We sense the imbalance and are uneasy with it, as are, of course, our kids; favored and disfavored alike. As parents we are duty-bound to at least TRY to correct the imbalanced scales.
The trick to unweighting favoritism’s ranking is to analyze and redefine our narrow views of our children to incorporate the promising dimensions we’ve had blinders on to. Possibly, then, we can more readily access the four components that enable us to love all our children the best we can; i.e. 1) with more understanding, 2) with more kindness, 3) with more of our best selves in the relationship 4) to coax forth the best selves of our children, while 5) remaining attentive to, in order to repair, any growing rifts in the parent-child bond.
How do we go about disarming our weighted parental rankings of our children?
Look for the next blog post!