Mommy Loves You Best. Not You, the Other One.

September 29, 2011 |  by  |  featured, parenting

While I’m all about “putting it out there”, there are some truths in life it’s best to keep to ones self. Such as…

  • That reason I always wear my good bra and lipgloss to the pediatrician’s office.
  • My shameful undergraduate GPA.
  • Acknowledging that I may have read every Kresley Cole book in print.
  • That I have a favorite child.

The cover story of Time this week is Why Mom Loved You Best by Jeffrey Kluger. The full article is only available to Time subscribers but here is a short video summary:

In a multi-year study of “384 sibling pairs and their parents the researcher concluded that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. And these numbers are almost certainly lowballs, since parents try especially hard to mask their preferences when a researcher is watching.”

It then explains what can make one child favorite: we have the most resources invested in the oldest, we like the ones most like ourselves, we feel compassion and want to protect the youngest, etc. That regardless of how hard parents work to hide favoritism it exists and every kid knows exactly where they sit in the sibling hierarchy.

Sadly I know nothing about siblings as neither I nor my husband ever had one. All I know is what I read about in Siblings Without Rivalry and from what our beloved pediatrician has told me as I pepper him with questions like “Should we be concerned that they intentionally pee on each other in the bath tub?”

If you’re like me your first reaction is to jump up and say, “That’s HORRIBLE! Those stupid scientists must be from CRAZYtown.” It’s really painful to consider that one of your precious pearls might be less loved. But when you consider it, the idea of sibling favoritism is a common fixture in our culture. In fact I DARE you to make a case that Marsha Brady wasn’t the favorite (Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!!!).

I recently stumbled across the Teachers 100 Best Books for Children and Tikki Tikki Tembo was ranked 53rd. This is a family favorite because it’s fun to read out loud. First sons are given great LONG names (Tiki Tiki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Peri Pembo) because they are so honored and beloved. The second son? Chang. If the parental love was distributed in an amount equal to letters in the name Tiki Tiki Tembo would receive 90% of Mom’s affection. Which, if you’ve read the book, he pretty much does.

One blogger openly discussed her parental preference and then got viciously blasted for what science tells us is a pretty universal thing. In fact what she is really saying is not so much that she LOVES one child more but that her son is easier for her to parent while her daughter is more challenging. And while I would question the wisdom of putting this information on the INTERNET, doesn’t every parent of 2+ kids feel that way?

I would happily take a bullet for either of my children but one is definitely more challenging than the other and frankly it’s EXHAUSTING. Ironically the challenging kid is the one who is clearly most like me: feisty and determined. So I find myself getting frustrated by him for exactly the same reasons that I probably frustrate those around me. Ouch.

It’s a really unsettling article. It forces you to consider the deeply hidden and surprisingly painful kernel of truth that yes, sibling favoritism exists. If you aren’t willing to face your own truth, consider the your friends who are parents of siblings. Which of their kids is the favorite? I mentally went through a list of friends and had no trouble figuring out who was the favorite. I did, however, hold off on asking them who was their favorite. Mostly because I don’t like to get hit.

The advice is to not worry about favoritism because we’re hard-wired to do it and it’s simply unavoidable. In fact really all you CAN do about it is to pretend that you DON’T have a favorite. “Of course I love you both equally!” Which isn’t easy to do.

Siblings are devilishly clever, much smarter than psychologists. They are constantly trying to fine-tune their niche to squeeze the maximum benefits out of their parents.
– Frank Sulloway – Family Expert of University of California, Berkeley

Luckily my boys aren’t yet old enough to start peppering me with the inevitable Sophie’s Choice questions that I know will come. “If our house was on fire, which one of us would you rescue first?”

“Both. I would lift you up simultaneously and carry you both out of the fire at the same time. In fact that is why I’ve been exercising this summer. You’re getting bigger and Mommy needs to be really strong to carry you both of you out of the fire. So quit complaining when I drag you to the crappy gym play area. Your lives will probably depend on it someday.”

Statue of two red figures with a heart
In a way I wish I had never read it. Because it forced me to secretly acknowledge that I have a favorite. And I’ve been feeling really guilty about it ever since.

I guess all I can do is to, in my silent heart, tell my less-favored child is that I love him completely and desperately. That my love for him fills me so full that sometimes I’m sure I it will burst out and run free because it is too big to be contained in my small body. And that I promise to be ever vigilant so that he never really knows.

{Photo Credit: Nancy Regan}

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  1. Awesome. I can completely understand it. I can’t figure out which is the favorite, because they’re all three so different, and challenge me in different ways. And frustrate me. And downright drive me crazy. And I probably love them all differently too, although I think I’ll steal that bit about carrying them all simultaneously from the burning house &b that’s why I’m weight training 🙂
    I wonder if the “most favored” title could rotate through the troop depending on the day and the task at hand? Hmmm….

    • The Time article says that “most favored” status is pretty fixed over time but I think you’re right – everybody has good days and bad. Congratulations on the weight training! (I hate weight training with a fiery passion but it’s pretty critical as we – ugh I can’t believe I’m saying this – get OLDER). I think I noticed you ran a 5K too, yes? Good for you!

  2. I must say, you are quite the writer and I enjoy reading your somewhat controverisal posts.. While I agree that there is definitely sibling favoritism in families I really had a hard time with this one. I think it really depends on the day and it was hard for me to consider who I enjoy more… I’ll tell you who the front runner is today…and its not the one who has gotten out of bed 10 times already 😉 But he was not the front runner yesterday after he peed all over our new couch…;)

    Keep up the great posts! 🙂

    • Well as you know I love to flirt with controversy. Next week I’ll be writing about the controversial issue of the German Banks bailing out the Euro. After that I’ll be tackling Demi and Ashton – who cheated and when can we see pictures?

      Wait, your couch which has barely spent a WEEK in your new house got PEED on? That would pretty much guarantee a spot in “least favored” status in my book!

  3. Since I’m certain that my sister is never going to read your blog, I’m going to say it: I was/am the favorite child. My mother used to tell us that she loved us “the same” amount but we knew she was lying. She couldn’t possibly love us the same. My sister and I are opposites in too many ways to count. I’ve no doubt my mom loves us both but the same? How could she?

    Your post really made me consider: do I have a favorite child? Who do you think it is? Although it’s possible that I just can’t admit it to myself, I don’t think I do. I don’t love my three children “the same” because I love different things about them. I know that I am hardest on and expect the most from my eldest. The youngest gets away with everything but is the most fun-loving (and the least like me). My daughter (the middle child) is instinctually drawn to activities I hated as a child and then she excels in them. Each of them has gravitated to his/her own niche: the big kid, the baby, the girl.

    I love your last paragraph…it’s like poetry. Fantastic post.

    • Does your sister think she you are the favorite too? And how do you KNOW you are the favorite? These things are just so interesting to me because I didn’t have any siblings to worry about.

      • You ask how you KNOW you are the favorite.. Well I was NOT! Still am not. And I know this for a fact because mommy dearest reminds me every single day.
        Like when she brags about how smart the middle child is, even though I have the highest IQ. Or how she drives 5 hours almost every weekend to see same sister, but cant drive the 40 minutes to my place, even when my 8 month old was brand new (shes seen him probably 10 times in his little life, but has been to sisters (who is childless) at least 20 times in the same period!). Or how about this christmas when she talked/bragged endlessly about my sisters upcoming wedding in 2015 even though MY wedding is in 5 months!!
        Researched got one thing right, us kids sure can tell who the fave is! <3

        • I used to think the same thing about my dad. He never bragged or praised me to others (or to me that I can ever recall) and it reallyreally hurt. I eventually found out that, in his European way, felt it was not appropriate. BUT, it turns out, he was bragging everyone’s ear off when I wasn’t around. Apparently, he was ridiculously proud of everything I did and I was the only one who didn’t know it. Odd.

          As for moms not seeing the grandkids; I’m grateful my mom seems to have forgotten my kids exist. She’s a really bad influence. I saw what she was teaching my brother’s kids (ie. stick your tongue out at mom behind her back and do what you want anyway)and want no part of it. I’d rather find respectful and supportive elders for my children to love and emulate, even if they’re not blood family.

  4. In almost every situation I can think of a parent favours one child more than the other.

    I think for the most part its personality based. If you like playing sport and one of your kids is sporty, chances are you’ll be closer to them later in life due to shared interests.

    As you said, you really don’t want to let your children know but when they hit 15 they’ll probably figure it out for themselves.

    • My husband is a HUGE skier and of course we take our little monkeys to the local ski mountain every year. I desperately hope that they both grow to love skiing (and frankly in VT, skiing is a necessary winter survival skill) because I know it would crush my husband if they didn’t. But the WORST possible scenario would only one getting into skiing because as you said, I think it would create a huge bond/common ground between the skier and Dad that the other wouldn’t share.

  5. My uncle has three daughters. To each of them, in secret, he said…” you are my favorite! But if you ever tell your sisters it will devastate them!”. I can only imagine that it was something that they could hang over each others heads, but I don’t know if they did or not. I have three children, and honestly wouldn’t call it a favorite, but it is one that you relate to/with the most. As your other posters there are so many qualities in each of them that I love, admire, and drive me nuts… But love is spread equally, and agree I love your last paragraph! Wonderful truths!

    • I gather the daughters all knew that their Dad was giving each of them the “you’re my favorite!” line? Note to self: don’t try to curry favor with your kids by telling them they’re your favorite cuz they’ll compare notes and figure out you’re a huge liar 😉

      Thanks for visiting Kristen 🙂 PS. How are you enjoying all your free time?

  6. I’m not dismissing Kluger’s entire article, but I am very well aware he is on a publicity tour for his newest sibling-based psychology book, so there’s that.

    • True that. And frankly, what better way to promote a book than getting it featured on the cover of Time! I know he works for Time – is that a perk all Time employees get? Man, I need to start applying for jobs at Time.

      But to be fair he does a really good job of backing his points up with credible research (UCal Berkley, Harvard, etc.).

      Thanks for visiting 🙂

  7. I’m not sure I could ever say, “I love you equally.” But I definitely can say, “I love you each quite differently” which is absolutely true. I have a favorite part in each child. My son is a lot like me so I can more easily connect with him, but he’s also whiny (like me, wince). My daughter is totally different from me, challenging, and hard to keep up with, but also very sweet, funny, and cuddly. I get fulfilled by very different things in my relationship with each one. All that to say, I think sometimes people get caught in the trap of feeling like they need to love every part of their children and then if they don’t, they end of feeling like there’s a problem or that they must now compare the children until one wins out with the “most positive qualities” and therefore that one must be the favorite, and then they feel guilty about it. But like in our adult relationships, you can love different people for very different reasons and each love is a different kind of love.

    • Seriously. Sometimes I feel like the “must love every part of your children” thing gets taken to extreme around here that almost borders on worship. You don’t dare speak in negative terms about your kids because some Moms around here would view that as an utter betrayal of the perfection that is your family.

      Personally I’m all about love and acceptance flaws and all. I’ve been sick and grouchy all week and I had to apologize to my oldest for being sort of a poop. He said, “It’s OK, I know you’re trying Mom.” That’s right buddy, I really am.

      • Awwww – what a super sweet kid you have! Hope you feel better soon. I’ve got the change-in-temperature allergies that are making me quite grouchy too. I haven’t apologized for it yet though. Not quite in that space yet : )

  8. This was a great post! An honest post! I can relate to much of what you said. I’ll admit – I don’t love equally, I love differently! Both kids I love in very different ways and it’s not really measurable. I do know that I love them both with all my heart. Great Post!! 🙂

    • You know I’ve thought about your points about loving differently and that is a fair way to put it. And I also acknowledge that the easy kid today will be the terror tomorrow. So even if there is a favorite it may be temporary to the day, or even the hour 😉

      PS. Thank you so much for posting about my post (wow that sounds so Meta ;).

    • That’s how I see it, too!!

  9. If it makes you feel better–I was a research psychology major in undergrad and came away feeling like the research never really shows the whole story. It just can’t. I’m not saying it’s all wrong or invalid, especially if you keep on seeing the same type of results from different research over time, but I always take research results with a grain of salt. I worked on projects where researchers were supposed to be double-blinded but weren’t, and there are lots of simpler flaws (soooo many studies are on college kids, NOT representative!, and then boring stuff like how researchers coded interactions).

    Just as one example–multi-year meaning a couple years, or 5+ years? Relationships with your kids will change drastically over major life stages (yours and theirs)–mine with my parents did when I hit puberty, went away to school, when my mom’s job changed, etc. You could favor one child for a few years, then another during another time.

    Right now, there is definitely one of my children that is a lot easier to parent, and I’m sure our interactions are more positive than those with the other because of that. But I’d bet you anything that things will be very different eventually: could be in one year or a few years, but if not, definitely when that “easy” child hits tweendom. I’m guessing we’ll bounce back and forth over life.

    I have two siblings and I honestly don’t feel like there has been, or is, a favorite. I get “different” attention at times because I’m the only girl, but I know there were times where I was a right royal pain in the ass and not someone my parents wanted to spend time with. I also think they responded to our needs, giving more attention and care to whichever kid was having a harder time.

    I dunno, maybe I’m in willful denial, but I think people are more complicated than this!

    • I totally hear you about academic research (I hope my professor husband doesn’t read this) and how flawed it can be in methodology, analysis, etc. Although I generally trust it simply because I don’t have anything better to go by.

      And yes they’ll probably flip into and out of the “easier to parent” bucket. Right now my youngest (2.5) is a delight. I’m consistently shocked by how easy going he is. But this could be the calm before the storm – in a few months I’ll eat those words 😉

  10. hmmmmmm so much to think about. I have 4, including a set of twins and like some other comments above it seems to switch. Some days I prefer the boys to girls or one boy and one girl. I loved this though!

    • There are no easy answers. And maybe no real answers at all. But it is fun to ruminate. In fact I think that is why I’m such a huge geek about going to parenting classes (seriously I go to WAY too many parenting classes). Parenting is this huge JOB that we spend 14 hours a day DOING but we never have any time to stop and THINK about it.

      Or anyway that is how I’m going to justify why I go to so many parenting classes 😉

  11. I did admitted to myself and didn’t feel guilty about it at the thought of loving my first (so far) baby more than the next one in line. I, deep down, had some points for this argument and when talking to hubs about it he, at first, felt awkward for me saying such a thing, but then he realized they were logically valid.

    My love, my effort, my pain, my fears, my every-feeling went into my first pregnancy, my first delivery, my first looking-after her first year. All those FIRST moments, emotions, decisions. Somehow make it different from the rest.

    • Do you have 1 kid or 2? (I did go check out your blog which is lovely BTW and am assuming only 1….).

      I will say that when I was pregnant with #2 I felt bad for him because it was INCONCEIVABLE to me that I would ever love him as much as #1. Until I did.

      But you are totally right in that #2 doesn’t get all the firsts that #1 does. It’s horrible to admit but we don’t have NEARLY the number of photos of #2 as we do of #1. When #1 was born we documented every waking moment. Now I barely bring out the camera for birthdays. *sigh*

      • I remember grabbing hubby by the arms when I was pregnant with #2 and sobbing,” What if I can’t love him as much I do her (#1 child)??!!??!” Hubby held me tight and said, “You have more love to give than anyone else I know. You have enough love for a hundred babies. You won’t be able to stop yourself from loving him with the intensity of the sun.”

        Also, about parents loving the oldest best; that is the one that parents have had the most time with to build quality memories and bond … I’ve recently given this a lot of thought while wondering about the “Do I love one more?” issue while laying awake at night, wishing I were sleeping … It’s not “love more” but “experienced more with”. I think that’s why some folks suggest putting aside one-on-one time with each child.

  12. This parenting gig can be so hard. I am an only child but my mom had a favorite… my stepdad. And while I have always worked to make things ‘equal’ and ‘even’ with my four kids, it is so true that some are just easier than others. It is somewhat reassuring to hear that we are hard-wired to have a preference.

    • Right there with you about being the single child and yet not the favorite (no stepdad thankfully, just a series of unfortunate girlfriends).

      I really wish I had a sibling. Everybody with siblings has a million, “My sister and I used to cut each other’s hair in our sleep,” stories. Meanwhile when my kids get into it I’m simply convinced that they’re growing into sociopaths. Having my own would give me a benchmark for “is this normal?”

  13. Okay – this was an *excellent* interesting and informative post. I love the Sophie’s Choice choice. (-:
    It covers such a profoundly deep and taboo topic that I’m afraid I won’t look at whatever the favoritism dynamic may be in our household because – this article just sort of touches too close to the truth!
    I’ma be an ostrich and stick my head in the sand on this one.
    Really really enjoyed reading this post.

    • Well thanks, I’m glad you liked it! Yeah there are many parenting things that don’t shine too brightly under close observation so your ostrich approach may very well be the right one 😉

  14. Wow. Just, wow. I read that blogger’s post about her daughter and son and loving one over the other. Obviously, some things had been taken out, like the editor said, because a lot of what the comments quoted was not there. At any rate, I can understand having dark feelings, but there’s a difference between having these feelings and sharing them with your close friends and making it public. For me, anything goes, so I might joke about things like this, like my out of control anxiety problems, like my three year old’s raging temper, but mostly, I’m exaggerating. Hyperbole is my middle name, after all. I honestly don’t think I love one of my kids over the other. They’re both a huge pain in the ass. But really, maybe they’re both too young for me to have developed this feeling. I hope I don’t. I can say that my younger son clearly favors my husband, and this hurts me. Also, because I have serious back problems that have acted up recently, I’m unable to pick him up, which also sucks and doesn’t help my relationship with him. I am more protective of my younger son because he suffered a stroke in utero, so I feel like I’ve babied him way more than my older son, and this may account for some of his developmental delay. I harbor guilt about that. I hope I can get this back crap under control so I can lift and toss and horse around with him. But, really, both boys demonstrate my personality, and I know for a fact I was a HUGE pain in my mother’s ass, so at least they’re both difficult? I don’t know. Touchy subject for sure.

    • So sorry to hear about your back problems. I hope it’s something a good PT can help you fix? Back crap, as you say, can quickly suck all the fun out of life.

      My kids definitely have favorite parents but it swings back and forth. So I feel like a rock star when it’s my turn and then become petulant when they decide that Daddy is best. But if it makes you feel any better I DON’T have back crap and I’m still pretty unlikely to toss them around. And frankly my oldest is too big for me to do it effectively. So I’ve switched to less physical play like chase and super soakers. I may not be able to carry you around but I’ll chase em down and toss them in the leaves anyday 😛

  15. I’m pretty sure I’m my mom’s favorite. But I’m also pretty sure that if you asked my brother, he’d say he’s my mom’s favorite too.

    That’s how to be a really great mom – make EACH of them think they are your favorite.

    • I hope my guys, when they’re older, will debate over beers WHO was the favorite and be CONVINCED it was THEM.

      Of course I’ll also be happy if they turn out to be the sort of brothers who are regularly hanging out and having beers, regardless of what they’re talking about 😉

  16. Lovely written posts. I don’t have kids, but I swore all my life growing up that my older brother was always the favorite. I know it. I pray that I don’t feel this way if/when I have kids.

    • Does your brother feel he was the favorite or would he swear up and down that it was YOU? It must really sting to even suspect that is the case and I’m sorry that you have that suspicion. But as a Mom I can say with absolute certainty that YOUR Mom loved you with all of her heart. That she felt you were a gift in her life. And she couldn’t have imagined even a moment of it without you.

      Hope that helps….

      • Thanks Alexis. I’ve never doubted her love for me. I’ve just always known that he was the favorite. I can tell by the way she treats him differently than me. And I understand the differences of raising a boy vs. girl, and the more worries and stigma attached to girls. But even beyond that, my mom always claimed that everything was equal, but it wasn’t. My brother wouldn’t say that I was the favorite. He either knows it’s him, or he thinks it’s equal, too.

  17. I love this. I am a youngest child and was last to leave the house and I’ve heard all the stories from my siblings (much older than myself) and I’ve gotten to watch the “favorite child” of my mother change. It’s amazing how one thing in childhood happens to parents and then as adults, there’s a whole new appreciation of children.

    My husband and I talked about it and it’s funny who we thought the favorites were. He claimed to be the favorite son-in-law. HAHA.

    • Nice gravitar!

      Probably you had it easier as the MUCH youngest because your older siblings paved the way. I have a friend who is a Mom of a much younger kid (she thought she had hit menopause and WOOPS! – two kids in college and a new baby). She’s so relaxed about everything because this baby stuff which we new moms stress about is all old news to her.

      So you’re saying he’s NOT the fav son-in-law? I’m the favorite daughter-in-law because I’m the ONLY. And thank God because we don’t speak the same language (literally) so if I had any competition I’m pretty sure I would NOT be the favorite 😉

  18. I know my brother would say I’m the favorite, but it isn’t true. I was just way easier while he was the equally loved pain in the butt. Am I lying to myself? Maybe, but I don’t think so–I really think they always loved us the same (and I definitely remember vigilently trying to figure this out as a child).

    I only have one baby and reading this makes me afraid to have another in case #2 turns out to be less beloved. The idea makes me sad.

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