Readers of a certain age may recall the sibling comedy team called The Smothers Brothers and the classic line Tommy delivered to Dick, “Mom always liked you best.” There are some who would tend to agree that parental preference contributed to their sense of self; either to their benefit or detriment.
Although parents may not love one child more than another, they may not always treat them the same since each is a unique individual. This topic came up in conversation recently with a parent of three boys. Each of these youngsters ranging from elementary to high school age, has a distinct personality, accompanied by challenges, exacerbated in part because of being part of a blended family in which the adults themselves came from backgrounds with varying parenting styles.
It also arose in the popular television show “This Is Us.” The flash back and fast forward drama highlights the multi-generational Pearson family in which three siblings, (triplets) their parents and extended relations reveal raw and real emotions and distinct needs. I am certain that there is at least one clinical consultant on the production team, since, the dynamics are not unique to this clan and the scenarios presented are true to life. I find myself, in between sniffles and moderate sobs, attempting to figure out the plot twists and lines in advance as they play themselves out on screen. In a recent episode, the two male siblings who were pre-teens were battling it out since their demeanors and interests, as well as communication styles were diverse and sometimes at odds with each other. Their sister had her own issues that had her requiring different treatment. The parents found successful ways of at least attempting to meet their needs.
As much as parents insist that they love each one the same, it is human nature to feel drawn to one child more than an another and it may not always be the one who is most like them. In my therapy practice I have had parents relate that they sometimes bump up against resistance with the offspring who reminds them of themselves. In a Time Magazine article entitled “How Parents Who Play Favorites Hurt the Entire Family”, author Olivia B. Waxman highlights a study conducted at the University of Toronto. The findings indicate that children who are treated differently, either intentionally or incidentally, are impacted negatively whether they are the favored or mistreated one.
A dynamic witnessed in my own family of origin plays out even to this day. I am the oldest of two girls; my sister is 2 ½ years younger. We exhibited vastly different personalities and behaviors. I was the more intellectual/cerebral/creative and she was the more kinesthetic/active. I had a series of health issues that required more direct attention from our parents and was perceived by her as somehow frailer, although I resisted that designation mightily. She took on the role of protector, that she tells me now, was reinforced by our father. I took on the role of “know it all big sister.” Although, on the surface it seemed our parents didn’t favor either of us, she might have felt that they did. Each of us had a unique relationship with our parents. She would likely say that she was more of a “daddy’s girl,” while I had a closer relationship with our mother.
A sampling of opinions about parenting styles, yielded varying perspectives.
“I think parents can gravitate to certain children over others and it’s not because they love them differently, some just click easily and for others, it’s a struggle to find common ground. At least, that has been my experience mothering four very different children. I have one daughter who constantly seeks me out and for that reason, we are closer when compared to her sister, who prefers her father’s company and often isolates herself in her room — no matter how much cajoling I try! I think for those children, you have to try extra hard to find something to bond over and that’s not always easy! My parenting has evolved a lot since my first child (I was 18) and my last (I was 31) and their experiences with me are night-and-day different. I think it’s very taboo for parents to admit they ‘like’ a child ‘better’ than another, but they are people, these are (intense) relationships that we are navigating – it is impossible for them to be loved, liked, treated the ‘same’. And different doesn’t mean less than… Just my two cents!”