Playing favourites with kids

Do you gravitate more towards one child over another?
Do you gravitate more towards one child over another? Photo: Getty Images

For parents Emma and Marc, their kids’ school sports carnival was to be as highly-charged an event as previous years.

Finlay, 10, is their eldest and is an excellent young sportsman. His eight-year-old brother, Jacob, however, has an inherent hatred for anything athletic.

“At first I thought Finlay was the apple of his dad’s eye because he was the first-born,” Emma explains. “But when Jacob arrived two years later, Finlay continued to be Marc’s favourite.”

Surprisingly, Marc readily admits to what he refers to as “preferring to parent” Finlay over Jacob. It’s a revelation that may make most of us shudder, but it’s a reality for nearly a third of parents, a new survey says.

Thirty-four per cent of mothers and 28 per cent of fathers admitted a preference for one of their children over the others, a poll from Parentdish revealed.

Described by his mum as being a “typical boyish boy”, Finlay loved rough and tumble games with his dad, and as the years went by, developed a love of all sports – particularly footie and running – passions he shares with his dad.

“People comment that Fin is Marc’s Mini-Me, and I find myself overly praising Jacob as he seems to fly under the radar sometimes,” Emma adds.

Emma confesses that Jacob’s gentler, bookish nature makes it easier for her to gravitate towards him over his brother, but she tries hard to avoid it.

“I love my boys equally and without question, but I do feel a need to do more to convince Jacob he’s loved just as much as Finlay is,” she says.


Favouritism is an issue for families of all sizes. Psychologists from Macquarie University have found that in families with three kids, middle children are very rarely considered family favourites because parents tend to favour either the oldest or the youngest.

And for Perth mum-of-three Natalie, this has proved an uncomfortable reality in just the last couple of months.

Always keen for a big family, Natalie and her partner were heart broken when their attempts at a second child ended in four miscarriages in three years.

“For a long time it looked like Brooke was going to be an only child,” Natalie, 35, reveals. But when she was nearly five, Brook was joined by a baby brother, Hugo.

“To say we felt gifted is an understatement. Hugo made us all so, so happy.

“But we were aware of the impact his arrival may have had on Brooke, so we tried to make sure both kids were treated absolutely the same.”

Hugo hadn’t turned one when Natalie discovered she was expecting again in August last year. Their third child, Louis, was born in May, and this time the family faced more of a challenge as Hugo started to fight for attention.

“He went from being a calm little cherub to a testy tearaway almost overnight. He’s too little to understand the baby needs attention and he’s acting up because he feels left out. This time around I’m too exhausted to reason with him and deal with it properly.

“Making sure he feels as loved as his siblings is tough. I’m just worried he’s going to suffer middle child syndrome.”

According to Dr Justin Coulson, a father of five girls who works as a psychologist at Happy Families, favouritism can be damaging for the whole family.

“If a child feels less worthy than a sibling, he or she may seek attention and love from sources outside the home. Unfortunately, seeking that attention outside the home can often lean to unfavourable outcomes, including feelings of loneliness and depression in the short term; in the longer term, it can promote stress, anxiety, depression, delinquency and other problems,” warns Dr Coulson.

But it’s a dynamic that can be overcome, as long as we recognise that it’s a problem and choose to deal with it appropriately, Dr Coulson adds.

To avoid favouritism, Dr Coulson advises: 

  • spend one-on-one time with all of your kids
  • listen to them all too
  • share yourself around
  • make sure they know that you’re there for them, even at times when they don’t need you
  • seek to be as patient as you are with one, as you are with others. In other words, keep it fair.

“However, remember that ‘fair’ is a subjective term. What one child needs is often more than what another child needs,” Justin explains.

“Satisfying one child’s needs may lead another child to feel that we’re not being fair, but the reality is that child is simply needier. So we have to work hard to reduce those perceptions.”

Do you or your partner prefer one of your children over the other? Leave your comment below.