The most taboo topic

The cover article for last week’s Time Magazine was about sibling rivalry. Specifically, how parents favor one kid over the others. According to Jeffrey Kluger, who just published a book on this topic, all parents have favorites.

To illustrate this fact, he talks about how researchers went into a home specifically to observe if they could tell the parent’s favorite. So parents knew what was going on, and still, within a few hours researchers could tell in roughly 70% of the cases. And here’s more damning evidence for parents: grown siblings seldom disagree on who was the favorite.

Of course, favoritism is damaging to the non-favorite. But the favorite suffers as well, because the siblings resent the favorite.

Psychologists say the best solution is for parents to hide favoritism as much as possible. Which means I will not write about my own situation in this regard. But I will say that my nine-year-old was drawn to the title of the cover, which read: Mom Likes You Best.

He picked up the magazine and started reading. I thought: This is good. My kid is reading the science section of Time magazine. I helped him divide the article into manageable sections. But I’ll tell you, his reading level miraculously went up five grades in order to figure out who is the favorite in our family, which strikes me as evidence that kids are hugely motivated to learn when the topic interests them.

13 replies
  1. emily
    emily says:

    Theory: When a parent has unmet needs they want to get those needs met from one or more of the kids – and the kid that can fill those needs becomes the favorite.

  2. L (another Lisa)
    L (another Lisa) says:

    Fascinating. My mom always said we were each her favorite but at different times in our lives (or her life). I think right now her favorite is my youngest sister and I’m ok with that.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great way to talk about it, L. It seems pointless for a mom to deny favorites when the data is so overwhelmingly certain that parents have favorites. And the kids know. So a better answer is this one your mom gave; it accepts reality without being crushing to young souls.


      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I read this yest. and I thought a lot, all day, about my brothers. They are twins and were always given the same thing regardless because parents didn’t want them to feel less loved than the other. I was older so I could “understand” if I got passed for gifts or other things.

        Recently we brought gifts from our vacation for the fam. Little things. And to one of my brothers my husband brought back a bottle of wine (on top of the little gift).

        We connect better. He’s made an effort for the relationship. The other one noticed and got all butthurt.

        I’m glad I read this because now I know it’s okay to have favorites and to say here’s the reason why.

        I love that I learn so much through this blog AND the comments. Oh they are my fave!

  3. leftbrainfemale
    leftbrainfemale says:

    Having homeschooled for years, and therefore spent untold hours with both my daughters, I feel that honestly I don’t have a favorite – I love both differently, but equally. It’s amazing to me sometimes, how different kids are. There are moments when I feel more love *at that moment* for one over the other, but that can turn on a dime. I do think it has to do with how much of yourself you see in them, but that doesn’t always mean you like what you see! I feel the most empathy, generally, for whichever child is at the time the most needy. But sometimes that feeling of empathy gets turned into irritation if I feel like they’re playing me in order to get what they want. In short, they’re human as I am. Not perfect. But both very loved.

  4. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    Your last sentence is a beautiful illustration of the principle that curiosity unleashes a child’s intelligence.

  5. Shanon
    Shanon says:

    I have one child in part because I grew up as the oldest girl of 3 and always felt the pressure of being responsible without any of the benefits.I agree that we always knew who was favoured in our family but this made me search for solid friendships that I’ve had for the last few decades that I wouldn’t trade for the title of “favourite”. My sister can keep the distinction; my parents are infinitely fallible, my friends are awesome.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Also, it occurs to me that what you and your son were experiencing with your shared experience of reading the Time magazine article is referred to as “free range learning”. Google it and you’ll find some interesting sites including a book that ties together this concept with homeschooling. I liked the presentation (prezi and video) at the Teaching College Math blog. The blog post is titled ‘A Recipe for Free Range Learning’ and can be found at .

  7. Will King
    Will King says:

    My sister and I knew who was the favorite for each parent, but in reality, it alternated – we were convinced it was the other child who was the favorite (though I was the youngest, so I had the advantage)
    As a single parent, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I get along better and have more in common with my daughter than my son.
    I’m fairly clear with my son that it’s not that I love him less, just that his sister and I are more alike, so by virtue of what we both enjoy, she winds up spending more time with me.
    I feel bad, but even when he’s given opportunities to join, he chooses the activities he enjoys (with friends) over spending time with me.
    In the end, he doesn’t really seem to be suffering for it – He’s happy, carefree and intelligent – he does well at school, in sports and (mostly) at home.
    I guess I’m ok with that

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