Joanna knew she had a favorite child from the moment her second son was born. Kent’s mum, who lives in the UK, says she loves her two children, but her youngest “gets it” in a way that her firstborn doesn’t.
When Joanna’s first child was born, he was taken away from her due to a health issue, and she couldn’t see him for 24 hours. She believed that losing this valuable bonding period was the beginning of a long-standing preference for her second son, whom she was able to spend time with immediately after his birth.
“To sum up our relationships: I have to make an appointment to talk to the older one,” says Joanna, whose full name is withheld to protect her children. “With the youngest of them, I could call him on 0230 and he would drive miles to meet me. The youngest is the cutest guy on the planet. He’s affectionate, generous, polite and friendly. He’s the type to help anyone.”
Although she has resisted her feelings for years, Joanna says she is now in a place of acceptance. “I could write a book about why I love one more than the other,” she says. “It was hard, but I don’t have any guilt.”
Unlike Joanna, the favoritism of most parents is hidden and not discussed. Having a favorite child may be the greatest taboo of parenthood, yet research shows that the majority of parents already have a favorite.
With so much evidence that being the less fortunate child can fundamentally shape personality and lead to intense sibling rivalry, it’s no wonder parents worry about letting their preferences go to waste. However, research also shows that most children cannot tell who their parents’ favorite child really is. The real problem, then, is how parents manage their children’s perception of favoritism.
“Not every parent has a child’s favorite, but many do,” says Jessica Griffin, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the US. “The data suggest that mothers, in particular, display a favoritism for children who have similar values and who interact more with the family, on traits such as high ambition or career drive.”