Parents playing favorites with children

The Takeaway

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

Parents inevitably play favorites, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Weber Lilly. “We all have preferences,” Lilly told PRI’s The Takeaway. And it’s important that parents acknowledge them.

“We can love all of our children the same,” according to Lilly, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a favorite.” Children often know who the favorite child is. It’s often the parents who have a hard time seeing the situation.

The issue comes down to honesty, and making sure that no one gets hurt by the situation. Dr. Lilly says, “Honesty is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean cruelty.” If parents are honest with themselves about who the favorite child is, they can work hard to make their households as equitable as possible.

There are inevitably situations where playing favorites causes irreparable harm to families. One commenter on The Takeaway’s Facebook page wrotes:

Certainly I am not the favorite sibling…this has caused so much grief over the years I had to banish my own family because of the favoritism played by our mother. Therapy has shown me how I am better off without them permeating negative stuff they have done so well over the years of my existence.

Dr. Lilly believes that commenter may have been in a situation where a child was designated to fill a void in a parent’s life. “It is true that being the favorite in that situation has lots and lots of downsides,” according to Dr. Lilly, “that there’s a blackness to it.”

Favorite children can sometimes grow up feeling indulged and entitled. That can lead to bad situations later in life. They can also look for people to play the role their parents once did, by indulging and revering them.

When parents acknowledge, even to themselves, who their favorite child is, they can work hard to change their behavior accordingly. And it’s important to acknowledge that favorite children can change. It’s important, Dr. Lilly believes, that “parents have to be honest with themselves with what’s true.”

“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH. More at

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