What to Do When You Have a Favorite Kid

A sad girl with her mom and sister in the background

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Although some families make jokes about having a favorite kid, most parents will publicly deny liking one child better than the rest. But the truth is, deep down, many parents do have a favorite child. One study examined 384 families in which siblings were born within four years of each other. It found that 74% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited preferential treatment toward one child.

It makes sense psychologically to develop a stronger bond with one of your children, particularly with the one that is most similar to you, says Paul Hokemeyer, LMFT, PhD, a marriage and family therapist practicing in California. "This is because parents are human," says Dr. Hokemeyer, and we are drawn to others that affirm and support us.

But just because it's common, that doesn't mean showing it is okay. Favoritism can cause lasting damage to kids. Simply having a preferred child doesn't make you a bad parent—and doesn't mean you love the other child any less.

So, don't beat yourself up if you have a favorite kid. But do keep favoritism in check and make sure your kids know that you have equally limitless love and support for them all. You can maintain healthy, fair relationships with everyone even if you really do have a favorite kid.

Acknowledge Your Feelings to Yourself

It may be uncomfortable to admit (even to yourself) that you are drawn to one child more than the rest. But pretending it’s not happening won’t change the way you feel. Plus, you have nothing to be ashamed of, says Dr. Hokemeyer, who contends that parental favoritism is perfectly normal—the key is to not let your preference cloud your parenting.

Let go of the guilt and remind yourself that it’s natural to get along with some people better than others. Likewise, it’s often unavoidable to connect more with one child. What's important is to make an effort to bolster the bond with your other child or children as well, suggests Dr. Hokemeyer.

Keep in mind that your special connection might not be permanent, too. When one child is going through a phase that leads to a change in mood or behavior, you may feel as though it’s easier to get along with another child. So, even though you might feel like you have a favorite now, your favorite child may change over time.

When you deny how you’re feeling or pretend it’s not happening, you might unintentionally show favoritism. If you acknowledge (to yourself) how you’re feeling, you can take steps to ensure that all of your children feel loved and accepted without singling out one as your favorite.

Spend One-on-One Time With Each Child

It’s often easier to spend time with a favorite child. You likely get along well, have limited conflict, and simply enjoy their company, explains Dr. Hokemeyer. You also might share the same interests and hobbies. So, quality time together might occur naturally—without having to plan it.

It takes more effort to spend time with a child whose interests are outside of your comfort zone. What if your child loves playing a sport you don’t understand? Or they are fascinated by history, but you could care less about Civil War facts? In these instances, you’re going to need to step inside your child’s world and proactively create opportunities for one-on-one time.

Consider how much time and attention your favorite child gets compared to the rest. Then, develop a plan to create opportunities to bond with each child. Even if you don’t love wrestling or can't understand how someone can be so interested in trains, be willing to do things that your child loves.

Plan special dates together, at least once a month, with each child. Let them have some control over the activity you do. Also, aim to spend a few minutes every day with each child. Show positive attention and a genuine interest in time together to ensure that everyone feels loved and valued.

Make Rules and Consequences Fair

Examine the rules and consequences you have for the family and for each child. There’s a chance you might be making exceptions for your favorite child or offering extra privileges without realizing it.

If your favorite child forgets to do a chore, you might say, “Everyone forgets to do stuff sometimes.” But when one of the other kids overlooks a chore, you might be tempted to say, “You need to be more responsible. I can’t remind you to do everything,” as you give that child a consequence.

Of course, being fair doesn’t mean that things will always be the same or equal. Your expectations about things such as bedtime, responsibilities, and chores should be based on your child’s age and maturity level.

Consequences should also be age-appropriate. You might put your 4-year-old in time-out while you take away screen time for your 10-year-old. Just make sure there are some logical reasons behind the rules and consequences you establish.

Praise Good Behavior From Everyone

You might find yourself praising your favorite child most often. But it’s important to praise good behavior from all your children. For example, say, “I appreciate that you started your homework before I even had to tell you to,” or “Thank you for waiting so patiently while I finished up my phone call.”

Make your praise about the specific behavior you want to see. Rather than say, “Good job,” or “You’re a good kid,” say, “You were really nice to that child at the park today when they fell down. I was happy to see you try to help them.”

If you have a child or two who act out more often than the rest, it can be tougher to praise them. You may have to look a little harder, but make sure you find good behavior that you can draw attention to. Not only will praise help them to feel good, but you’ll also show that you appreciate their behavior, which can reduce their fears that you favor another sibling.

Avoid Singling One Child Out

While it’s helpful to praise specific behaviors, don’t cross the line into singling someone out as your favorite or least favorite. Saying things like, “If you all acted like your sister, you’d get to stay up later too,” reinforces that one child is your favorite. A better option is to say, “I hope you earn a later bedtime, too. Here’s how you can show me that you can handle going to sleep 15 minutes later.”

Similarly, avoid pointing out the child who is lagging behind by saying something like, “If your brother didn’t dawdle so much, we’d have time to stop for ice cream.” A better option is to praise the kids who are on task. Turn to a child who is working hard to get ready fast and say, “I really like the way you’re putting on your shoes.”

Don’t compare your kids either, saying things like, “Your sister knew all their math facts by the beginning of the school year,” or “Your brother could do that when they were half your age.” Comparing your kids pits them against each other—and sets up an unhealthy dynamic where you’ll be accused of picking favorites.

Show positive attention to whichever child is showing good behavior, and you might inspire others to follow suit.

Address Concerns Head-On

It’s likely that every parent is going to hear their kids complain about a sibling being the favorite at one time or another. When one of your kids accuses you of playing favorites, you might be tempted to respond by saying, “That’s not true.” But such a reply isn’t likely to be effective. Plus, unanswered worries about being a disfavored child can have adverse consequences into adulthood. Instead of dismissing your child's worries, address them.

Offer Facts

Point out the facts. This could mean saying something like, “I know you think it’s not fair that your brother gets to have a phone and you don’t. But they're older, and they show me that they can be responsible enough to handle a phone.” Or you might say, “I know you’re angry your sister gets to have more time to play games every night. It's because they do their homework right after school and earn more free time.”

Be Honest About Similarities

Agree that you have the same interests as one child. You might simply reflect on what the kids see already. Say something like, “I know you think I like your brother better because we spend a lot of time together. But we both happen to really like working on cars, so we spend time in the garage together. If you’d like to join us, you can, anytime.”

You also might make it clear that you would enjoy spending time doing other activities with a child who doesn’t share your interests. Ask them to come up with suggestions for things you could do together.

Explain Why You Are Drawn to One Child

If you really are drawn to one child and the other kids are noticing it, acknowledge it. You might say something like, “Your sister and I have personalities that work well together. This doesn’t mean I love them more or that I don’t like your personalities as much. It just means we have a lot in common.”

Share the Habits That You Prefer

Describe the behavior you like to see. You also might explain that it’s easier to get along with one kid at certain times and another one at other times. You might say, “Your brother has been following the rules lately and doing things before I even ask. That makes it easy for me to get along with them well right now.”

Let Them Know You Love Them All

Assure everyone that you love them and that a close bond with one sibling does not reduce your love for the others. Make it clear that just because you get along with one child better sometimes doesn’t mean that you love that one more. Assure all your kids that you love them very much and you don’t love any one of them more than the rest.

Validate Your Child’s Feelings

Even if you don’t understand where your child’s concerns are coming from, validate their feelings. Say things like, “I know you feel upset that you think your brother is the favorite sometimes. It must be really hard to feel that way. I’d be sad too.”

Call Out Favoritism From Other Adults

There may be times when you feel like your partner or other influential adults in your children's lives are the ones favoring a child. When you see this happening, gently point it out. If you’re noticing it, then the kids likely are, too.

Resist the urge to compensate by showing the other kids extra attention and affection. You might make things worse if you do. Instead, talk to the adults without the kids around. Explain what you’re seeing and why you’re concerned.

If it’s a partner, you might need to suggest activities they can do with the other kids. Or offer strategies for showing attention to each child.

If it’s a grandparent, you may need to set limits if they aren’t listening to you. This may mean saying their favorite child can’t go on special outings unless each child gets a special outing. Or it might mean encouraging grandparents to attend all the kids’ activities, not just one child’s baseball games.

Get Professional Help

Showing favoritism toward one child can be quite damaging. Not only might it affect the children who feel less favored, but it can also take a toll on the child who is favored. And research shows that the effects of it might last well into adulthood. One study found that siblings who said their mother favored or rejected one child over another were more likely to exhibit depression in middle age.

Showing favoritism can also affect your kids’ relationships with one another. They may never establish healthy sibling bonds—a lack that may last well into adulthood.

If you’re struggling to avoid showing favoritism—or you’re accused of it and don’t know how to respond in a healthy way—seek professional help. You might also get help if your partner shows favoritism toward one child and doesn’t want to do anything about it. A therapist can assist you in ensuring that you establish healthy family dynamics.

A Word From Verywell

While it can feel uncomfortable, having a favorite is not a betrayal of your other children and isn’t something you need to be ashamed of. Still, it’s important to create a loving environment where all of the kids feel nurtured, supported, and valued.

So, rather than ignore it, accept that you’re feeling drawn to one child more than the rest. Then, use this knowledge to keep tabs on whether you’re showing this favoritism. Additionally, aim to find new ways to connect with other children. However, if you’re having difficulty managing your feelings and helping everyone feel equally loved, seek professional assistance.

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