Impact of child favoritism can last a lifetime
By Cassandra Spratling
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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, Brown 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 Marla Renee, 55, Brown's sister. "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, who wrote the book, "The Favorite Child: How A Favorite Impacts Every Family Member for Life" (Prome- theus Book), which was released in January. "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 consequen-ces of the over-indulged family favorite show up most commonly in politicians and athletes, Libby says. She cited 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. 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."
Althalia Brown of Detroit, the mother of Jesse Brown, now 53, 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," she says.
Looking back, Jesse Brown believes no harm resulted from being a favorite because his parents, 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, 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."