Playing favourites

Antonia Kidman on the challenges of parenting.
Antonia Kidman on the challenges of parenting. 

Recently, my eldest daughter asked me to nominate my favourite child.  Of course, I smiled at her and replied with the standard denial that I did not have a ‘favourite’, but rather loved them all equally.  But her questioning persisted and resulted in me eventually offering, ‘I don’t have an overall “favourite”, but rather at times I find different children easier or more preferable to be around than others.’

In other words, the position of favourite fluctuates and sometimes doesn’t exist at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question, so I admit I was somewhat prepared.  I have thought about it a lot, partly because my children have quite different personalities and also because I’m intrigued by family dynamics and the tendency to slot members into categories. The brain, the clown, the goody-two shoes... the list is endless. 

But the reality is we have many masks and how we behave in the company of one set of people may be vastly different to how we act in another.  Similarly, how we relate to each other within the family can be completely altered by mood, circumstance, age or when its composition changes.  In a larger, blended family and living aboard this is frequently obvious.  There are many occasions when one or several of our children will travel away and the impact of this on those left at home is remarkable.  Suddenly, their behaviour changes; the ‘vague’ one becomes more responsible, the ‘active’ one more helpful, the ‘moody’ one more vivacious.  Also, there is less fighting, teasing and competing for attention.  It doesn’t usually last too long though, after a few days the rivalries have adjusted and those left behind are battling things out, albeit in different hierarchical positions. 

There has been plenty of research on the issue of favouritism and most of it relates to the order of birth, with first-borns tending to dominate. The argument is that because parents devote a proportionately greater amount of energy, resources and time to the oldest child there is an evolutionary urge to continue with the investment. But there are so many other factors that contribute to favourable parental attention.  Parental narcissism is one and may manifest as an attraction towards a child who has similar passions or skills. Temperament is another; a bubbly, vivacious personality is easier to live with than a quiet, moody type. Gender can influence the type and time parents spend interacting with their children, in most Western cultures fathers tend to spend more time with their sons than their daughters and mothers more time with their daughters than their sons; likewise, the youngest or most vulnerable child might elicit a greater amount of parental protection, which could be construed as favouritism.    

If I happen to have a ‘favourite’, then it tends to be the child who responds to my particular needs and desires at a particular time.

If the tables are turned do the same factors apply? How common is it for a child to favour one parent over another? Certainly some do, but if I examine my own situation I see that I am definitely similar to my father in terms of habits, behaviour and interests; however, my mother’s influence and energy is just as powerful. I probably ‘clash’ more frequently with her, but that is because I am more open, in touch and demanding of her, in short our relationship is more intense because we are of the same gender.

In most families, children and parents like to please each other and receive some recognition for their efforts. In our household, if I happen to have a ‘favourite’, then it tends to be the child who responds to my particular needs and desires at a particular time. Most recently, it was the child who gave me my favourite Easter egg!

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