What are the impacts of having a “favorite” child and how can we provide each kid with the parenting they need while avoiding resentment or unhealthy competition among siblings? In this episode of the parenting manual we discuss the impacts of playing favorites with your kids while avoiding resentment or unhealthy competition among siblings.

Summary and Notes

Episode 15 Impacts Of Playing Favorites as a parent

[00:00:22] – Emphasize effort over outcome
[00:02:41] – My wife’s perspective on how favorites play out in family
[00:11:31] – The impacts of obvious favoritism
[00:14:55] – How parents change their lingo and give praise
[00:25:21] – Long term effects of motivation
[00:29:51] – Setting Aspirations: the work and the journey

Quotes from the Episode

“We don't want to waste our kids' time and they shouldn't have to wait for us to pass away for any wedge or division that we have placed there to go away. We want them to be close now. We want them to be close in the future. Of course, that's always going to be their choice, but we don't want to set it up to fail from the beginning.” [00:08:33]

“We don't want our kids to have to go on some quest. It's not to get something that we could give them for free.” [00:12:22]

“We celebrate the accomplishments of both kids as an aspiration for the other kid.” [00:27:18]

“The joy is in the journey and the work and not the end product.” [00:34:08]

Transcript below

Today I want to talk about how my wife and I go about not choosing favorites with our kids. So we're going to talk about how we were raised and also what we do to make sure that we treat our children as equitably as possible. So one of the things that we have focused on is making sure that we.

Emphasize effort over outcome. So we, we praise our children for the effort that they put in the practice that they put in rather than the grade that they get or the, or the, if they, if they win or if they score the goal, we focus on how they're showing up and hoping that, that a good outcome does arise from that rather than praising them only for when they score that goal or for when they achieve that outcome.

And so I'm going to have a little chat, with my wife right now because I think that this is going to be something that's useful for, for our kids to hear, but it's also useful, I think, for other people listening in. And the reason that it's useful for, for our kids is that when we did the research or this episode, we realized that.

Neither of us really understood how our, how our grandparents were raised, how they were parented. For instance, my grandfather, I know that he was in the middle somewhere of 10 brothers and sisters, and I knew that they grew up very, very poor in the depression. And other than that, I really don't know very much about how he was parenting other than there was not a lot of food around my, my father.

I came from a culture where the firstborn son was basically the favorite, the chosen one. And my father was, in the middle. He was the second boy, and then he had a younger sister, so he was basically in the middle and he was kind of always had to prove himself to his parents. And so I want my kids to know that history.

And then I want them to understand how we made the decision to change that pattern moving forward. So, what do you want to say about that in terms of, of, you know, like, I mean, you've met my grandfather. You've met, my parents. You met both of my grandfathers actually. , my grandmother passed away before we got married, of course.

But, and then you met my dad's mom. What do you think? What's your perspective on seeing how favorites played out and your family?

Well, I'm going to answer the first question about your family cause I think it's just a stronger example because it's more PO polarized then in my family.

Not that favoritism didn't happen cause I think it is something that has to consciously be. Not done. I think if you consciously make the decision not to favor one child over the other, it's a, it's a little bit more doable, but if you're not thinking about it, I think it naturally happens. And I think that was the experience for my parents.

My dad's one of four boys, Ooh, grew up on a dairy farm and worked really, really hard and produced most of their food. And. I know he felt loved, but I wouldn't say that he was super duper close to his parents because it was a family business and their livelihood and literally their life depended on the hard work of getting up early and milking cows and running the tractor and all of those sorts of things.

I have no idea about favoritism. He was, he was the second of four boys. so I, I don't, I don't know much. My mom is one of three girls. She's a young guest. Both her parents worked and had college degrees and they lived in an old Victorian home and probably wear white gloves every Sunday.

And it was a rather proper existence. And she maybe would have said her middle sister had preference, but I think it was more just that my mom really wanted to be more like. Her middle sister because I don't have any obvious signs from how my grandparents interacted with them as adults, that there was a quote-unquote favorite.

But in your family, it is so much more striking, especially in your dad's family. I met both your grandparents who have both passed on your dad's parents and. I mean, they seem like very nice people up front, and I'm sure they were very nice people, but the culture of the family was such that the older brother was given a lot of, you know, a lot more financial help.

Everything that he did was gold, whether it really was or not. And then your aunt, your dad's sister, who's younger. Also had a whole bunch of financial help and it was sort of the, Oh, that poor little girl mentality, even well into adulthood, because of course, this is only the last decade I'm talking about in your parents.

Your grandparents were in their eighties and nineties during this time. So this is the pattern that I saw running that from everything I've been told was not different for this several decades before this. And then near there, there's your dad who's a college grad and accomplished family man, and really a self-sufficient guy who, you know, maybe does, hasn't won any giant awards, but neither have his siblings.

And he's sort of looked, I wouldn't say he's looked down on, he's just not looked at. He's looked. You know, through the he, he's an afterthought. He's there. He's not in the corner, but he's not the star of the show ever. And your dad before his mom died, I would say had a stressed relationship with his siblings.

I don't know how he felt about his parents in terms of. Of how close he felt to them, but because this favoritism was so strong, not only did he feel a wedge between him and his parents, but that that favoritism drove a pretty ginormous wedge between him and each of his siblings.

And as soon as your grandmother died, that changed and they had. Family meals together every week cause they all live in the same small States so they can get together frequently. I mean, distance is not really the issue. It was closeness and it was this very obvious wedge that seemingly disappeared fairly soon after she passed away.

And so it makes me wonder. You know who the enforcer of the favoritism was, if that, if her passing made such a giant difference. And although I'm sad for your dad that he didn't get to have the relationship that he has now with his siblings, I'm grateful that he at least is going to get that experience before his generation is in their eighties and nineties and potentially passing away and having health problems.

So. I think especially given that they're an immigrant family, I just can't imagine coming to a new country, a new language and not really being that close to your family. I mean, talk about something to overcome. And then decades and decades later, after mom passes away, getting together for family meals once a week, speaking your native tongue.

That just, I mean, talk about a serious transformation. That's pretty awesome, but I think it has reinforced to us that we don't want to waste our kids' time and they shouldn't have to wait for us to pass away for any wedge or division that we have placed there to go away. We want them to be close now.

We want them to be close in the future. Of course, that's always going to be their choice, but we don't want to set it up to fail from the beginning.

You know, it's interesting. I've talked to my dad a lot, actually, about what has happened since, since my grandmother passed away almost, almost 10 years now at this point.

And what is so interesting is he's really opened up to me about that, and he. Was under the impression that it was a meritocracy. He was under the impression that he just had to work harder in order to get his father's attention. Ultimately, it was his father's attention, but he wanted his, his parents' attention and approval, but it was like chasing a rainbow because the closer he got to it, the further he got away and it wasn't until she passed.

I think. That he realized that it did not matter. He literally could have turned led into gold and it would not matter because if he eclipsed his brother, then that would upset their, their worldview of, of, of how they, of how they held things. And so, what it did was in that aspect, it made him extremely, extrinsically motivated, which.

Which can be good, but as also, you know, it kind of, I would say it may be burned out. The part of him that has that sort of intrinsic motivation. Now I will say that my dad is very intrinsically motivated in, in certain aspects, especially related just to his, to his work. But I know that, that it really, it really hurt him, too.

For several decades at least to be always trying to, not to one up his brother because he was never trying to see. This is the interesting thing. It was not a competition it was. It was. My dad was just trying to stand on the same stage as his brother. Even if he see that. The interesting thing was that even if my dad did something far superior to his brother, if he achieved something.

Far in advance of what his brother achieved. It was never recognized as being as good as what his brother had done. And so, that obvious favoritism I think carried over a little bit into, into, into our family. but from not from the perspective of, of making it a competition, I think that my, my dad decided that, that he was not going to compare me to anyone because.

He saw the impacts of that, and now we see the impacts of that as well. carrying on. And, one thing that, that I've also discussed with my dad that, you know, he, he said that only, after his mother passed away, you know, he had never actually, his father had never actually told him that he loved him up until that point in time.

And so that was, you know, it was really interesting to get this conversation. With my dad, and we've had our, you know, heart to heart talks, which, which are very good, but it makes me happy to know that he, he did get that later on in life. it's unfortunate that, that he had to wait so long to, to get that validation.

But I guess the point is, is that, we don't want our kids to have to go on some quest. It's not to get something that we could give them for free or his parents. Two, show him that they care in a way that says, Hey, you know, you're there. All right, too would literally cost them nothing.

Literally costs them. Nothing to show him. Just to give him a nod and say, Hey, you know, good effort there. Good. Go with that. cost them nothing, but it was as though it were their treasure and bringing it back to our kids here. What, what I think is, is, is important, and you know, I'd like to get your take on this as well as is.

The kids compete for our short term attention. Somebody wants a book read and somebody wants another book read. That's, you know, we can't be in two places at the same time. So we talk about, Hey, let's read a book that we can all read together that is much different than competing for attention of approval, competing for attention of, Hey, help me brush my teeth.

Versus one kid wants to get in line first for getting their teeth brush that's, that's not such a big deal as opposed to competing for attention of, Hey, does my parent really care about me? So how are we going to overcome that?

Well, the, the thing about your dad's story that there's a lot of things about it that really bother me, that I think we've made. Pretty conscious decisions to change and certainly the approval from his parents of, Hey, look at me, not because I'm doing anything special, but just because I'm here and I'm, yours is one.

And then the other is the competition that he felt with his is siblings that he didn't realize until he was nearly 70 years old that. It wasn't a meritocracy in that there really wasn't anything he could do to get that approval. And I think I see competition among siblings frequently. If you take a step back and look at how parents change their lingo between, you know, just how they give praise and how they don't mean to show favoritism, but do.

Not, not necessarily that Johnny gets more ice cream than Susie, but in the way and the authenticity of their communication with each kid, I think is where I see it. And the kids pick up on that. It doesn't have to be Billy in the kids are so amazingly perceptive. Body language and tone of voice will go a long way to tell one kid I'm not quite as cool as my sister.

So we've. Work really hard to not compare them in terms of, you know, your brother got a better grade on this at your age than you're getting. You need to step it up, which granted, our kids go to a school with no grades and they're three and six, so that's not pertinent right now. But that's the most tangible example that comes to mind.

We're not, we're not comparing them. And part of the reason we're not comparing them is because we've chosen to praise their efforts and their practice and the dedication they give to an activity or a task or a venture that they have rather than on the end product. And what the result of that is, is.

Each kid gets praise that's commensurate with their effort. And if our son works really, really hard to build a fort in the living room, and we say, Whoa, buddy, that's huge. It's so big. We don't then turn around and say to his little sister, your fourths so wimpy, or why isn't it bigger? Or why didn't you build one?

It's just about him and his project and the work that he put into it. Maybe she's in the other room putting a diaper on her baby for the hundredth time for the day. And that may get praise. You know, you're working really hard to take care of that baby might be the praise, or maybe she doesn't get anything, but it's not like a tip for attack kind of thing.

We give him praise for his effort. Oh, we have to acknowledge her for something because I think it would be really easy to get into the trap of, Oh, we just told them he did a really good job reading that book. Now we need to go tell her something. It's definitely not same and equal are two different things and focusing on.

Our children's derive and work ethic and intrinsic motivation are the things that get praise and you can't compare those. You just can't. It's really hard to say, you know, your drive is better than your sister's drive because there's probably something, it may, it may not be the same thing. He may be really driven to read and she might be really driven to play babies, but.

There's no reason to compare them. There just isn't a reason. And I don't know if it's because of this, that we see them get along pretty stinkin. Well, we've seen, I always thought it was their age difference that may, in the fact that it's a boy and a girl that made the difference because there are enough difference in age.

They're not usually interested in the same toy, but we have friends with kids who were exactly the same age, like days difference in age. And their kids fight frequently. And I don't know if that's because there was something about how the parenting is happening that is giving the kids a sense of I need to compete with her or him.

So do you want me to comment on how maybe that contrast with how you we're raised in kind of the comparisons that were made there and how that held you back. A little bit because you felt that if you out shined your sister, that that would upset the Apple cart, so to speak. Right?

Sure. If you can make it fairly succinct.

Yeah. Well, I don't know about that. So, so what I've noticed is, Mmm. And please correct me at any time when I, I, when I get this wrong, but, your sister, you're, you have a younger sister, maybe two years younger, and what has happened is you have, you both started out, You know, doing fairly well and in school and as we've discussed, there's a difference between being educated and doing well at, at school, at the game of school, you are very good at the game of school, and so you started to associate with a different crowd than her, and where.

That's where your paths kind of diverged, not only academically, but in the choices that you made in life. And so, what would happen or what, what I saw was that anytime you made an accomplishment, it reflected in such a way that it showed that your sister was not making an accomplishment. And I think that that made your parents.

and specifically your dad really, really uncomfortable to see how much of a divergence was taking place. And so you then almost self-censored yourself, not in terms of maybe your accomplishment, but you were hesitant to even report back to your family on something positive that happened to you.

And this is, you know, even after we moved. Across the country. You were hesitant to report the good things that you were accomplishing and the good things that were happening to you because you felt that that it would not be received well, bye by your parents because it would then contrast the experience that you're your sister was having.

And that manifested itself in our family in a really bizarre way because these people are halfway across the country. But it was almost as if they were right in the room next door. When you went to talk about what you were, how your day was with your folks, it was you were speaking in hushed tones.

You were, you were, you were making yourself smaller. Physically. I'm looking at you talking on the phone and you're hunched over making yourself smaller because you want to minimize how a substantial of an accomplishment you had just made it work or or. Something of that nature. And so, I don't know if you have any more insights on that, but I think it's also interesting that we've worked through that and now you're more comfortable talking about those things with your family.

But we had to put in a lot of work to do that because what was frustrating to me was once we had kids, we said, Hey, you know, or I said to you, our kids are going to pick up on this. And they're going to pick up, even if they can't put their finger on it, they're going to say, when mommy talks to her parents on the phone, she's different than when she talks to her other friends on the phone and they're going to pick up on that.

They're not going to know why, but it's going to train them that there are some people that they need to make themselves small around in order to feel safe. So we had to work through that, and I'm glad to say that. I would say we're where either work through it or really, really. Really close, but it's made, it's made things a lot better and it was not easy at all.

No easy. I, I don't really have anything to add other than, because our children are still so small. The only thing I remember from like, you know, when I was six and my sister was three, since our age difference is very similar to our own children's age difference. Certainly the praise for effort happened, but also the praise for the accomplishment happened.

And I remember at some point as we got a little bit older, but probably not even out of elementary school, the accomplishment praise started to decrease a little bit, or it would be done in private because my mom would always say. I don't want to compare you to Andy. So it was like you can't have a high five for getting X, Y, and Z accomplish because it might make your sister feel bad.

So it's not that they weren't proud of me, and it's not that they didn't acknowledge my accomplishments, but it was probably not. To the level that it would have been had I been an only child or had I been, if, if roles had been reversed, if my sister's accomplishments were eclipsing mine, I'm sure.

I'm sure that praise she got, which I didn't see all that often, was probably bigger praise for less of an accomplishment. And I don't know. I mean, I think so consciously or maybe even consciously, that was a. Hey, maybe if we give her a bigger high five, she'll try harder and she'll be up where her sister's at.

I don't know what the reasoning was, but I know that even in the single digit ages, you know, birth to 10 that that had started where some of my accomplishments always right. They were always recognized. I cannot fault my parents for not recognizing my accomplishments. It's just they always were protective of my sister's feelings.

And sometimes that may have looked like a lesser acknowledgement than maybe was desired or needed or anticipated given the situation .

Yeah, and it's interesting the longstanding effects of that in terms of motivation later on in life, because. One of the things that we had to work through was almost this sort of , like a self-governing effect or a self, almost like when, when we started to re, like, we would almost get to a goal, but then there would be like this self sabotage that occurred two, slow us down as we started getting to that goal.

Or that would dip us back down. because, you know, being in that place of. Of, well, I'm going to get a muted response from my parents, or I'm going to potentially upset them. That's eventually, that's where it got to was, was you were actually, you did not want to tell them good things. I think that that is, is, it's not a good place to be where you can only tell where you can only tell someone bad news, but you can't tell them good news.

Because it might upset them because of the comparison that it might make. And that's where I, I made the comment, Hey, you know what? Our kids are gonna, our kids are gonna see this and they're going to pattern that. And that's not cool. We can't do that. We can't allow that to, to continue because then they're going to normalize that and they're going to think that that's, that's fine.

So if they meet somebody when they grow up. Who behaves in that way, we're going to be like, well, Hey, that, that, like, this is not new to us here. This is not a new behavior that we're seeing here. So it's, it's perfectly fine. Mmm.

Regarding, regarding the comparisons, one thing that, that, that I, no, that we both try and do when we haven't coordinated this, but. we celebrate the accomplishments of both kids as an aspiration for the other kid. So when our son, for example, who's, who's struggling with, with reading right now, we point out to our three year old how that's a good place to be.

How that, not that that's a good place to be, but that that's a, he's putting in a good effort and we point out the progress that he's making to back is his sister. And

can I interrupt you? So it's not, I don't want to misconstrue cause what you just said is a little bit confusing. It's not that we're saying he just scored a goal.

You should want to score a goal too. It's still always praising the efforts and the determination and the tenacity. So what's very interesting about this reading thing, our kiddo is desperate to read. He is just chomping at the bit to read, and he falls asleep with a headlamp and a book every night.

And you can hear him sounding out the letters in the other room, and he's just. Gung ho he's going to do this and it's going to be amazing when it happens. I'm very excited. But anyway, he has had this goal of wanting to read for probably six to eight months now where it's, it's a really intrinsic desire to read and he has, bless his heart, put in a ton of effort and his sister sees him trying and we give him praise.

Like you are working really hard at this reading thing. Is there anything we can get you to to help you a little bit and, Oh, you got a reading lesson at school today. That is the coolest thing. I'm so proud of you. I know how long you've waited for that. Nestor's hearing that, and lo and behold, now she picks up a book and she's pretending to sound out the words because she is emulating the process.

Not the end result. Not sitting down and reading the book because she's not seeing her brother sit down and read the book cause he can't do that yet. So she's seen the fortitude he's putting in. She's seen the resulting praise of that. And she's totally down with giving it a go too. So I think it's really important when we talk about setting aspirations for our children that it's.

The work and the journey to get to the thing that is getting the applause and is getting the, you could do this too. Nod and not the, he's reading a book. Why aren't you reading a

book? Yeah. And that lack of comparison, I think even has extended to his. His school because he, he goes to school with kids.

I, he's the oldest kid in his class, but there are younger kids there too, and some of the younger kids are reading. He has a, an I issue that where we're working through right now. Maybe we'll do another episode sometime about services in the school system for kids who have some sort of disability or, or issue or something of that nature.

But that's not how our kids sees it. Because what w w what you told me, he said the other day. When he asked somebody if they were reading. Yeah.

He asked somebody in class if they were reading, and I don't know what their response was, but he looked at them and said, I'm not reading yet. And was very matter of fact about it, like, this is just who I am.

I'm not doing yet it yet implying that he will do it and he will absolutely do it, but totally content. It's, it's not, it's not bad that that kid is reading and I'm not. It's not a judgment on them. It's not a judgment on me. It just is. And it's awesome that at six and a half, it just is to him that it's not taking a toll on his self esteem or his drive.

I mean, if anything, it's made his drive stronger. He like so badly wants to do this, but he doesn't feel bad for himself in the process.

And that's. That's exactly what we're trying to manage right now is to, is to keep that intrinsic intrinsic drive, that keep that fire going and, and let him, you know, let him blossom with that and let his sister see that as an example to, you know, obviously everybody has to have a little bit of extrinsic desire to catch up to their big brother or big sister or something like that.

But from the perspective of what's driving her. In turn, like from an intrinsic perspective right now, they are both very self-directed and they get a lot of enjoyment and pleasure from their own accomplishments that we might not be setting for them. That's one thing that I think another, another thing and then we'll wrap it up here, is because, we chose, we chose a Montessori school for them and Montessori is extremely self-directed in terms of the activities.

The activities are very structured, but the kids get to choose what activity they're going to do. And I mean, that just keeps them so engaged throughout the day as opposed to if they get bored with something or if they master an activity, then they, then they move on to the next thing. They don't have to sit at it and struggle with it unnecessarily.

They can come back to it when they, when they develop more skill. And so I think. I would say that that's a small piece, but I would, I would say that the big piece is actually having taken the effort to look back in history, SI how those patterns were run in the past, see how our family behaved in the past, see how they were raised up in the past, and then seeing what the longterm impacts of that we're multi-decade impact and then trying to fix it to make it, better for, for our, yes.

The next generations.

I think my only closing comment came from one of our, one of our kiddos teachers at parent-teacher conferences last week, and she said, if I, if I had it my way or something like that, every child would be as enthusiastic. About learning as your children. She said they get it, they get it, that the joy is in the journey and the work and not the end product.

Holy moly. I don't think I ever learned that in my almost four decades on this planet. I don't. I think if I figured that out, it was very recently, and so I'm. Highly, highly motivated to preserve that for our children who apparently already know that

the joy for us was in getting a, yup, not the, and it didn't matter if, you know, as long as you got the a, it didn't matter if it was a, if it was held together with duct tape and, and twine, as long as it got you through that, that goalpost for that a, and then you could forget that information and.

And just go on. But yeah, we're going to, we're going to work on this, and I don't know, do you think we should do maybe an episode on a on kids who have some sort of issue that needs, like for instance, normally our kid would not be evaluated for this vision issue until the second grade, and so that's that.

That would mean that he . Not even been evaluated for something that, and optometrist said, Hey, you have this problem. But had we relied on the school system to do that, he would've had to wait two years and none of his teachers would have known that there was any problem. And it's only because you're a medical professional that you know what questions to ask.

And do you think that that's what we should do our next show on?

I think that, or just school in general. Because a lot has come up in this episode about, I mean, the big picture here is we're not comparing our children. We're going for intrinsic motivation by praising their efforts and their dedication and their tenacity.

And frankly, that plays a huge role in where we choose to send them to school. And it. The journey of finding a school and finding a community of likeminded people has been an uphill battle and we still don't have all the answers are our kids' school, well, not allow our son to return there next year because they don't, they don't have, they don't have classrooms for kids his age after this year, we've already taken on a bonus year this year, so we can't take on a second bonus year.

and I would be very curious what listeners think about schools, what they think about traditional schools, nontraditional schools, alternatives. We really are seeking any guidance we can on how to preserve our vision for our children and where they spend their days. Meaning school. It's a giant influence

on that.

All right. So with that.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


For better or worse, kids repeat the parenting patterns they experienced as children. We explain the parenting decisions we made and their intended outcomes to equip our children with an understanding of their default behaviors so they can better navigate the world and find success in life…


Got a question you’d like answered in the show? Click the chat bubble. You can even send it anonymously (but what fun is that?)

Scroll to Top