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Serious consequences when parents favor one child

Siblings from left to right, Khephera Jesal, 60, of West Bloomfield, Mich., Jesse Brown, 53, of Farmington Hills, Mich., and Marla Renee, 58, of Detroit, pose for a portrait . Brown, center, was purportedly the favorite child in their family. McClatchy-Tribune (McClatchy-Tribune)
Cassandra Spratling Detroit Free Press

As a young boy, Jesse Brown got a canvas-covered red wagon unlike anything else seen in the entire northeast Detroit neighborhood where he grew up. Clearly, he was special.

Years later, his three sisters had to buy their own cars. Brown got one courtesy of his parents.

“He seemed to always get whatever he wanted,” recalls Brown’s sister, Marla Renee, 55. “We were kind of jealous. We used to beat him down sometimes, take his stuff or knuckle his head.”

Every family with more than one child has one: the favorite.

While the issue is often laughed off, having favorites in a family can have serious, long-lasting consequences – for both the favored child and the other children in the family.

And experts say that whether most parents admit it or not, they will inevitably favor one child over another at some point in life.

“It’s perfectly normal for parents to favor one child or another at one time or another. It’s what they do with that favoritism that can create problems,” says Dr. Arthur Robin, a psychiatrist and director of psychology training at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

While favorites and their siblings can grow up to become well-adjusted adults, family favorites can cause major problems.

“I’ve had people say to me, ’My siblings, to this day, resent it,’ ” says psychotherapist Ellen Weber Libby, authored of “The Favorite Child: How A Favorite Impacts Every Family Member for Life “ (Prometheus Books, $18).

“I’ve had favorites say that the guilt they felt about being the favorite caused them to bend over backward to show affection toward their siblings.”

The notion of family favorites touches people from all walks of life. And it isn’t inherently bad, Libby says.

Favoritism can have positive consequences for the favored child because it leads to feelings of confidence, love and power.

The negative consequences of the overindulged family favorite show up most commonly in politicians and athletes, Libby says.

She cites the scandalized Tiger Woods as a classic example of a favored child gone wrong. Woods has two half-brothers and a half-sister from his father’s first marriage.

“He was his father’s favorite,” Libby says. “He wrote that at 9 months old, Tiger had a natural swing. I don’t know many babies at 9 months who walk well, let alone have a natural swing. Tiger acknowledged in his press conference that he felt entitled.”

Libby says parents shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging different feelings. Usually, the children know anyway, she says.

“We can love all our children,” she says. “We can be willing to go out on a limb for every child. That doesn’t mean a particular child doesn’t touch us in a particular way.”

Jesse Brown’s mother, Althalia Brown of Detroit, sees it this way:

“It’s true I prayed for him because I had three daughters and we did want a son. But I love them all the same.”

Looking back, Jesse Brown believes no harm resulted from being a favorite because his parents and sisters and extended family modeled self-reliance and responsibility.

“I don’t feel I was spoiled as much as I was nurtured and supported,” says Brown, 53, who founded and runs the Detroit Wholistic Center, which promotes healthy lifestyles and practices.

“The way they mentored me and the behavior they modeled helped to make me a stronger person.”

Even though psychologists say favoritism is inevitable, some families insist it doesn’t exist in theirs.

Reggie and Jahada Turner of Detroit say they make a point of avoiding any semblance of favoritism with their seven children, who range in age from their 3-year-old daughter, Jahreena, to their 16-year-old son, Reggie Jr.

“I’ve seen the ugly side of favoritism and I’ve tried not to repeat it,” says Jahada Turner, 42, a social worker.

Turner says she once heard her mother identify her sister as the favorite, though it was already evident.

“I think my mother is a loving mother with a great heart. But my sister was never wrong in my mother’s eyes,” she says.

The Turners work at being consistent in how they reward and discipline their children, and are mindful that even little things mean a lot.

“If we do something for one child and not the others, we make it a point to explain the reason,” says Reggie Turner, a marketing representative for Costco.

For example, a few years ago, the couple decided to get cell phones for the three oldest children; they purchased a fancier phone for the oldest daughter because she earned exceptional grades on her report card.

Later, when their son did well in school, they upgraded his phone. Their other children know the older children received phones because of their ages and because a family deal made it economical to get phones for three of them.

What should a parent do when a child says a sibling is your favorite?

Listen. Communicate feelings in ways that assure love for every child. Take steps to correct behavior that may be sending the wrong message.

That’s the advice from family psychologist Kenneth R. Greenberg, who recently penned “Tusky’s Big Decision” (Xlibris, $25.99), a story about an elephant who runs away from home because he thinks his sister is loved more.

“There’s some degree of favoritism in every family with more than one child,” says Greenberg, a University of Maryland professor emeritus. “It can range from mild to severe, but it’s inevitable because children are different.”

Problems arise, psychologists say, when favoritism is overt and only one child is consistently favored. Favored children sometimes grow up facing more stress because they’re held to higher standards or no standards.

“Parents should realize they’re not doing that child a favor. It’s like being a teacher’s pet; teacher’s pets don’t do well with their peers or classmates,” says Greenberg.

The child not favored may end up resenting the favored child. But they also can grow up well-adjusted because they don’t have the stresses associated with being favored.

If a child expresses concern about another child being favored, the parent should first appreciate the fact that child opened up about his feelings.

Usually, young children don’t tell their parents if they feel that way. Instead they tell a sibling or someone else and the parent overhears it or is told by someone else, Greenberg says.

Open communication is the best thing.

“Listen and then do a personal evaluation,” says Greenberg. “Maybe there’s a basis for the child feeling that way or maybe there’s some truth you have not seen.”