6 Ways to avoid the favoritism trap

By | September 10, 2012 | Motherhood & Family

6 Ways to avoid the favoritism trap
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Which one of your children do you love the most? I know what you’re thinking. You don’t ask parents that! We’re not supposed to have favorites. That’s hurtful. We should love all our children equally right? You’re correct. Congratulations. You passed the pen and paper test.

But do you really walk the talk? Children are keenly sensitive to their parent’s actions and attitudes in developing their own sense of self. We must guard against anything that would result in our children developing feelings of being less than, less loved, or less worthy than their siblings.

Yet, we unwittingly do just that in several ways that many of us are completely unaware. It’s always easier to see when other people are favoring a child, but it’s much harder to notice it in our own families. Check the list below to make sure you’re not accidentally leaving one child feeling they are second fiddle in your family.

Here are six ways to avoid showing favoritism:

1.  Never compare.

Sometime parents hold another child up as an example, hoping the old “shame as punishment” method will somehow be motivating. Well, it isn’t.

“Sean’s room is nice and neat, why can’t you keep your room tidy like your brother?”

“Sean’s eaten everything on his plate, what’s your problem?”

“Sean’s already done his homework, if you’d have sit still and concentrated like him you’d be done by now too.”

Okay – don’t you just hate Sean already? These types of comparisons dissuade a sibling from even trying because they feel they could never keep up with the “golden child” Sean, so why even try? In fact, if they try and come up short that will only serve to confirm their feared notion that they hold a second-class status in the family.

2.  Never set them up for competition.

We’ve all done it: “First one to the car wins!” or “First one to pick up their toys gets to pick the bedtime stories.” You might temporarily speed up your children, but you’ve stoked the competition between your children for your approval by subtly conveying the message that if you win the competition, you move up in your parents esteem. We act like it’s just a game but children confuse winning competitions with winning parental love and approval.

3.  Never agree to act as judge.

Even if you don’t initiate the competition, children will do so themselves and try to pull you in as the judge:

“Mom, which one of us held our breath under water the longest?”

“Dad, whose swing went higher?”

“Which summersault was better?”

I’m telling you – don’t go there. Sure, it sounds like you could be an objective outside observer, but it will bite you back. Someone will think your judgment is biased and that you took sides. Instead, say “Does it really matter? Why not encourage each other to improve on your personal bests?”

4.  Never expect kids to set an example.

“Don’t swear in front of your brother. Do you want him to learn that?”
“Use your manners and set an example for your brother.”
Asking an older child to subvert themselves or adapt their behaviors for the betterment of a younger sibling can leave the older child feeling resentful, complaining “You care more about him than me.” It’s better to say, “Swearing is rude. Let’s clean it up, please.” or “Please use your manners. It makes for better company at the table”.

5.  Never accommodate to the lowest common denominator.

“We can’t watch that DVD. It’s not appropriate for your little brother.”

“Be quiet. Your sister is napping.”

“We have to leave the park now. Your sister needs her nap (or a diaper change).”

While I don’t expect you to suddenly put on a slasher movie at bedtime, I do recommend that you listen empathetically and show genuine concern. “I know it can be tough having a baby sister that limits some of what we can do. Is there another time we can cuddle up and enjoy your movie? I really like watching shows with you too. It’s just a logistical problem we have to solve together.”

6.  Never take sides in a fight.

The biggest contributor to having one sibling feel their mom or dad prefers their other sibling occurs when parents get involved in their squabbles. Parents see a conflict and feel it’s their parental duty to step in. Unfortunately, parents usually see one child as being the aggressor in the wrong, and so one gets punished and the other they feel a tad sorry for. In fact, it takes two cooperating to make a fight! However, the cooperation is misdirected.

If you want to avoid showing favoritism, I suggest you adopt the rule: “Two do the crime. Two do time.” This means both children experience the same consequence for fighting. If they can’t share the computer without fighting over it, they both lose their computer time. If they fight physically, they both go to their rooms for a time out until they get along together – regardless of who is the hitter or hittee.

Try these tips and see if the situation becomes more harmonious in your home!


Can you think of other ways to avoid the favoritism trap? Share your comments below.

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Alyson Schafer

Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canada's leading parenting experts. Alyson is the best selling author of 3 parenting books: Breaking the Good Mom Myth, Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and her latest Ain't Misbehavin’. She’s also the media's go-to person for parenting and speaks regularly on parenting issues involving kids of all ages. For tips on discipline, bullying, sibling rivalry and other daily parenting issues visit www.AlysonSchafer.com.

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