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A growing body of evidence shows that parents really do play favorites. Whether parents are aware of it — and willing to admit it — or not, the ways preferences play out in families can have a lasting effect. We talk about how favoritism effects family dynamics.
- Ellen Weber Libby licensed clinical psychologist; author, "The Favorite Child" (Prometheus Books)
- Jeffrey Kluger senior editor, TIME magazine; author "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us" (Riverhead).
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We all have favorites, a song that makes us smile when we hear it, a food that brings back fond memories whenever we indulge, the book read time and time again, a treasured watch or bracelet, clothes that make us feel sharp. But a favorite kid?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMost parents won't admit to it, but studies show at least two-thirds do have a favorite child. Which one? If parents claim they don't have one, just ask their kids. They'll tell you who mom or dad's favorite is. Joining us to discuss the issue of siblings, favoritism and family dynamics in our Washington studio is Ellen Weber Libby. She's a licensed psychologist practicing here in Washington and the author of "The Favorite Child." Ellen Libby, thank you for joining us.
MS. ELLEN WEBER LIBBYMy pleasure.
NNAMDIJoining us from NPR's Bryant Park studios in New York City is Jeffrey Kluger. He is a senior writer and editor at "time" magazine and author of "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us." Jeffrey Kluger, thank you for joining us.
MR. JEFFREY KLUGERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThis is a subject that I know that our listeners want to weigh in on. So I'll give out the phone number right now, 800-433-8850. Are you willing to admit to having a favorite child? Why is that child special to you? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ellen, parents typically won't tell you who it is. But were you the clear favorite in your family?
LIBBYI was absolutely my father's favorite and I was thrilled for that. And my mother clearly didn't like me. So, you know, it felt okay to me that I had dad's -- I had that great role with my dad.
NNAMDIAnd you knew that you were your dad's favorite?
NNAMDIHow about you, Jeffrey?
KLUGERWell, it was clear, I came from a family of four boys and it was clear that my dad preferred the oldest, mostly because of primogeniture. I never had heard the word heir apparent before that, but I was pretty sure it didn't apply to me. My youngest brother was my mom's favorite. And that turned out to be a more valuable prize than my dad's favoritism because he became sort of an absentee father anyway. But in both cases, it was pretty evident to all four siblings who the favorites were and that that was probably not going to change.
NNAMDIJeff, as much as they might deny it, there's a growing body of research concluding that parents do in fact have favorites even though most deny it. What's the most surprising finding that you've come across?
KLUGERWell, there are a number of them. One of most surprising is that, as we often seem to believe, cross-gender preferences are very common. So among the parents who do exhibit a favorite, the father tends most often to favor the youngest daughter and the mother tends most often to favor oldest son. The surprising element of that is that when you look deeper into that data what you find is what they value in that child are traits that are typically associated with their own gender.
KLUGERSo, the father who's a businessman who loves his tough as nails daughter who has an MBA or the sensitive mom who loves her son the poet. It's sort of -- there's a certain measure of reproductive narcissism in that. You know, your opposite sex child can never look exactly like you, but if that child exhibits your traits, you're going to be all the more grateful.
NNAMDIHow about physical traits? Apparently, there are studies that point out that a lot of people prefer the more attractive over the less so of their children, yeah?
KLUGERWell, that's absolutely true. I mean, there's a huge body of knowledge that shows that that's true in the family, in the workplace, obviously in the dating market. And one of the folks, one of the scientists I spoke to in the book, said that that goes back to the general heuristic that what is beautiful is healthy and good and smart. And, you know, we're genetically programmed to look for beauty because those are signs of fertility and good health and, you know, all of the things we seek in a mate and in a child, because that child will carry our genes further.
NNAMDIEllen, you say no two children are alike, so it's impossible to respond to any two children in the exact manner. Yet admitting a preference is taboo in most cultures. Why is there such a stigma attached to this idea?
LIBBYBecause I think most parents confuse love and favoritism. I think parents can love all their children just the same. You know, you look at my child and give him a hard time in school or you're unfair, parents are going to go to bat. Parents love -- many parents love their children. We hope most parents love their children. But that's different than having a preference. I think that preferences are often unconscious. I don't think a parent gets up one day and say, okay, I'm going to have a preference here.
LIBBYParents choose and have a favorite for all kinds of differing reasons. So, I think what's really important is to acknowledge that every child is different. Every parent is different. Even twins are different. And two people just connect in different ways.
NNAMDIAs the father of twins, I can testify. But the point you're making is that favorite status does not necessarily mean that you are more loved.
LIBBYVery important point. And I think that if parents really understood that and accepted that, they would feel less shame and discomfort with the inevitability that in a given moment in time we all make choices.
NNAMDIJeff, it's my understanding that there's a biological component to favoritism as well. Why should I be glad I wasn't born the smaller of two black eagle chicks?
KLUGERWell, black eagle chicks are -- black eagle mothers are notoriously indifferent to the weaker of the two chicks. And after the weaker one is born, the smaller one will usually rip it to ribbons and the mother stands by and watches. Similarly, the crested penguin mother will kick the smaller of her two eggs out of the nest, presuming usually accurately to the extent that a crested penguin presumes anything.
KLUGERBut concluding usually accurately that the biggest egg holds the bigger chick, which will be more reproductively successful. Now, again, this gets back to the idea that all child bearing across all species is essentially a utilitarian act of getting your genes to the next generation and making sure that the offspring who carry those genes get those genes to the following generation. So you place your bets on the biggest, strongest and healthiest.
KLUGERThat's often, by the way, the reason the oldest becomes the favorite. It's a concept that businesses call sans costs, you know, with two years of investment, time, money, love, calories poured into the first born. When the second born comes along, well, the first born is the product for just this long assembly line, so you favor that one.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking with Ellen Weber Libby. She is a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C. and author of "The Favorite Child." Our topic, siblings, favoritism and family dynamics. Joining us from studios in New York is Jeffrey Kluger, senior writer and editor at "Time" magazine and author of "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us." On the telephone, here is Lorie in Fairfax, VA. Lorie, you're on the air, go ahead please.
LORIEHi. I just finished your article in "Time" magazine. It's great and I loved your references to Biff of the father blew him so full of hot air that when he got to be an adult he could never stand taking orders from anybody. I can remember thinking about those lines when I was bringing up my son. But what I wanted to talk about was that I always tried to adopt, not to treat them fairly or equally, but to be an equal treatment of the children was not what they want, but to try to meet their specific needs.
LORIEAnd at one time, one kid is your favorite or does get a lot more of your attention. But then the next time, the other kid needs you and they have some needs, then you're able to do that. And we never said it was going to be fair in terms of our time and attention and love. It's like each as they needed it, we would be there for them and sometimes it wasn't equal, but we really tried not to show favoritism. It's kind of scary to think that we're biologically wired to do that, but I tried not to do that.
NNAMDIDid any of your kids resent your not showing favoritism?
LORIEI don't think so. I don't think so. Each one was -- one was an actor and into drama and really, you know, a performer. And the other one was more introspective and into quiet art. And so they had kind of went in different directions and we were able to value their contributions and their skills and as individuals. And really see them as individuals and not compare them.
LIBBYLorie, I think that you're touching on something that's very critical and I really like you bringing up the notion that who is favorite may change from time to time or moment to moment, that at a particular point in time, you may have a child who you have a particular bond with for whatever reasons. And at another point in time, you may have a bond with another child. I think that there are a lot of positive gains that children get from favoritism. So that in an ideal family, we would hope that all children at some point in time would be able to have the privilege, the experience of knowing something about favoritism. So, I think you're really on to something that's just right.
NNAMDILorie, thank you so much for your call. Jeff, sibling relationships are often the ones that stay with us the longest. What do we learn from our siblings?
KLUGERWell the answer is pretty much everything. I mean, keep in mind, you share a playroom, you share a bedroom with another child usually within a year or two or a couple of years of your own age at the point at which your personality is the softest clay it's ever going to be. So every fingerprint that gets left on that clay is going to stay with you. That means conflict resolution, conflict avoidance. That means conversation, that means love, loyalty, the need for privacy, breaching privacy, property rules.
KLUGERAll of those things that are vital to functioning in not just in the playroom, but on the playground, in the workplace and later in your own marriage. All of those things are practiced in the home. And it's not for nothing that studies show that conflict resolution skills that are good skills when they're practiced in the playroom generally do lead to less fighting when kids get to school. And kids who engage in a lot of physical combat and a lot of poor conflict resolution skills are likelier to get into brawls on the playground simply because they're coming into that world outside their home without the complete skill set that ideally they would have.
NNAMDIEllen, care to add to that?
LIBBYI also think that siblings learn a lot about competition. I think that some of the notion of favoritism really hits to the guts of that. And I think that that is so stressful for so many families because we don't like thinking of how competitive we are with siblings within a family and yet competition is there, as you say so well, Jeff, that something that siblings teach each other. And I think that favoritism gets to the heat of that.
KLUGERWell, that's right and if I can just add one thing.
KLUGEROne point Lorie made, the caller made when she was on the line, is that one of her children pursued on kind of art one perused another kind of art. Her kids were very different. And this gets to the idea of de-identification. You know, if you're a second born and your older brother was a football player, well, you can become a football player, too, and get, at most, 50 percent of the attention for that skill.
KLUGEROr you can forget about football and at least play another sport or maybe run for student council or be an artist or something else and get 100 percent of the attention for that. As I say in the book and in the article as well, kids are a little bit like tree leaves. They sort of sort themselves out so they are growing in a shaft of light rather than in the shadow of the leaf above them.
NNAMDIOn to Stephen in Alexandria, VA. Stephen, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEVENI tell you what, I've got two of them. They're 10 years apart and the second one is the challenge. I never practiced favoritism, but that little kid is the most manipulative thing I've ever seen. She claimed that, the first one of all the attention. So I get it in every way, lazy. On my (word?), she's, you know, smart, smart as a whip, but also smart and manipulative in appearance (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDISo she's obviously a different child to her older sibling. How do you deal with her differently?
STEVENYou know, we're so exhausted from all the effort that we have to put in, mentally and physically, because getting her to do a chore is like getting Congress to act.
NNAMDIOh, really good analogy right there. I don’t know, Ellen Libby, care to offer any advice to Steven?
LIBBYSteven, that's a quandary that you have a lot of company in. There are many parents that talk about exactly that issue and it truly is a challenge. And it's a challenge for a couple of reasons. First of all, because your child is so manipulative and difficult and frustrating and I'm sure there's a great desire to get away, to pull back from that child. It's very important not to overlook that, as a parent, we try and redefine the dynamic a little bit.
LIBBYYou don't want all of your relationship with that child to be about how difficult the child is and, you know, as a parent, that's an ultimate challenge. I know that to give her more attention is not necessarily the answer, but certainly to try and redefine the attention so that you can find a ground so that she doesn't feel that she's the un-favorite child.
LIBBYBecause, I think that the damage done to any child who feels un-favored is very dramatic and as parents, we certainly don't want to go down that path. And it's also important for the child who is an easier child because that child has also learned something. That child has learned what they need to do to maybe be favored and that teaches the child something about a manipulation that may or may not work in the world. So your honesty about what's true is your gift because with that honesty, you can certainly engage in discussions with your wife or best friend about ways to try and even it out a little bit.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steven. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on siblings, favoritism and family dynamics. If the phone lines are busy, you can join us at -- online at our website, kojoshow.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Were you or was one of your siblings the clear favorite in your family growing up? How did that affect family dynamics, 800-433-8850? Or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, we're talking with Jeffrey Kluger, senior writer and editor at "time" magazine and author of the book "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us." And Ellen Weber Libby, licensed psychologist, practicing here in Washington and the author of the book "The Favorite Child." Our conversation is about siblings, favoritism and family dynamics. Ellen, most people don't want to be defined by their position as the oldest, youngest or the one in the middle, but as a society we link a lot of personality traits to birth order, how does that affect favoritism?
LIBBYI'm not of the belief that birth order really defines favoritism. I'm of the belief that favoritism is defined by the child who makes the parent feel good, hopeful, competent. Sometimes it's absolutely birth order. I've certainly worked with families where an adult woman always had an estranged relationship with her mother and yet her -- the woman's father had just died, she's pregnant, she gives birth, it's the first grandchild.
LIBBYThe grandchild is named in memory of the father and this women's status in the family changed. And it was really because she gave the first grandchild. And so that was really terrific. But there -- sometimes parents favor children who are the least like them. Parents may seek traits in themselves they really don't like. They may have a child who is opposite them in ways that they wish they were different. So they may favor that child.
LIBBYI've certainly worked and witnessed many families where the parents would like the child or favor the child who is most like them. So it varies and it's really a function, not only of what happens in the here and now, but it's also a reflection of maybe what has gone in prior generations and what is the family history and how it gets handed down.
NNAMDIJeff Kluger, what do we know about birth order?
KLUGERWell, I'm going to -- we know a whole lot. One of the things is that we're realizing that lay people, sort of, came to this, even before psychologists did. It's one of the rare things that all of us who are not scientists, sort of, understood intuitively and then the research came along after. I am going to disagree slightly with Ellen, but only slightly about the favoritism piece. I do think favoritism is in many ways driven by birth order, but I don't think it drives the same choice all the time.
KLUGERThe first born, as I said, is most typically the favorite, the plurality, if not the clear majority of all cases. Simply because of that san cost issue and the future of the clan as seen as riding on the shoulders of the first born. But the youngest is often the most charming, the youngest learns these low power skills, you know, you're the smallest one in the playroom, you are at the greatest risk of getting slugged.
KLUGERSo it helps you to develop, to be able to charm, and disarm with humor and intuition and a sense of charisma and all of the skills that allow you to compensate for your small size. Other things that are at work, and were at work in my family as well, and this really distinguishes us from the black eagle and the crested penguin, is a sense of compassion. My father's least favorite was my younger brother and -- my youngest brother and he sometimes expressed that with a lot of anger and corporal punishment.
KLUGERThis drove my mother to gather him in all the more closely, in part to protect him and in part because he quickly did develop those last born skills, the charm skills. Well, going by black eagle rules, she should've disinvested in him because he was already facing enough of a hurdle getting out of childhood in one piece, let alone surviving to a reproductive adulthood.
KLUGERBut while humans come with the same lower software as black eagles do, we build millennia, millions of years of other subtler gifts on top of it, compassion and understanding and sympathy and love and all of these things may drive parents to favor the least likely, least reproductively promising child.
LIBBYJeff, as you look back at your own family and you look back at your youngest brother and his relationship with your mother and father, do you also have any sense that maybe your youngest brother filled a void in your mother's life? That after the youngest was born, that your mother had some lingering needs that maybe your brother filled? And maybe some of your fathers animosity was that, this child was filling a void that -- and he was feeling pushed out?
KLUGERWell, that's entirely possible, as I say in the book and I believe I also mentioned it in the magazine piece, my mother loved the idea of my -- of four children, four sons particularly. My father would've preferred to stop at three. So as is often the case, with either an unplanned child or a child who was, you know, sort of, argued -- somebody had to argue the other partner into it, that child winds up being resented.
KLUGERSo I think my father came in preloaded for a little bit of grievance. I also think my mother withdrew from him on the basis of that. So, yes, I think there was, sort of, this unhealthy spiral going on and Bruce did jump in and fill that charmingly. And I have to say, even as his competitive older brother, I found him irresistible, too. He's a riot. He was adorable. He had red hair and tortoise shell glasses and he was like a Pixar character. How could you not love him?
LIBBYAbsolutely. That's -- but that's a skill that he learned from being a favorite child and that certainly is skill that takes him through life.
NNAMDIHere now is Victor in Woodbridge, Va. Victor, your turn.
VICTORThanks for taking my call. I was just wondering about if your guests could discuss only children in the context of this conversation.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up.
VICTOR(unintelligible) I hear a lot about the...
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up. The number of families with just one child has nearly doubled since the 1960s. I guess, what you'd like to know, Victor, is what effect does having no siblings have on kids? Are they, like, favorite by default? Jeff?
VICTORYeah, well, I hear a lot about the, you know, having the opportunity to imprint on older and younger siblings and learn different skills. Well, I was an only child so, you know, am I left hanging out to dry as a result of that? Where do I learn those skills?
KLUGERI devote a whole chapter in my book to the two bipolar representatives in the sibling broods, the only children and multiple births. And only children, as I'm sure Ellen knows from psych history, were once seen as, by definition, almost pathological -- the famous American psychologist G. Stanley Hall or psychiatrist, once said being an only child is a disease in itself. But not only do studies find that's true, studies actually find that only children tend to skew higher in a whole range of categories like vocabulary and grasp of civic events and sense of humor and taste in music and taste in books.
KLUGERAnd this all comes from growing up in a household in which they're outnumbered by parents, two to one. And this isn't a result of parents just talking over, only kids. Even when they're talking at a level they understand, only kids still get a more sophisticated emotional sense, emotional development. In addition, the idea that the only child lived in a lonely playroom after school has changed dramatically in the era of two income households when nobody is home to be a full time parent as a -- and as a result, kids get plunked into daycare when they're five months old.
KLUGERThis happened with my children. And while we overschedule kids after school, and that's a bit of a problem, that also gives only children additional opportunities for socialization and for learning those skills that they're not getting in the playroom.
LIBBYVictor, I think that the issue of being an only child is not an issue of favoritism. I think it's an issue of entitlement. That some only -- the downside of being a favorite child is to grow up feeling entitled. I think that when there's an only child, the parents have a far greater challenge to raise the child feeling as if they are accountable and responsible for their actions and that they are not entitled to whatever the child thinks they're entitled to, just because the child fills a void or a presence in a parents' life.
LIBBYSo that the issue is not whether it's an only child or multiple children, the issue is how the family, how the parents treat the child so that the child can grow up feeling that they're favorite and special, but that they're not entitled to something that is totally inappropriate.
NNAMDIVictor, thank you for your call. I'm going to take a couple of phone calls and read you an e-mail because they all deal with the same issue, parents actually telling children who is the favorite. Here is James in Washington, D.C. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESHi, Kojo. I called because I was excited about your topic. I grew up in a family of 11 and we always knew who the favorite child was and we always played that sucker like a violin.
NNAMDIBy which you mean?
KLUGERGood for you.
JAMESIf there was something we wanted for Christmas, he was going to deliver it.
JAMESThere was a birthday present, you know, he was going to deliver it. He incidentally -- and he's passed away because I'm an old guy, you know, but he incidentally resembled my mother. And my mother loved him and we all knew that he loved them, but we also knew that she didn't love us any less. But she loved him because he was the -- her first born.
NNAMDIAnd so you all found out a way how to make good use of that, huh?
JAMESExactly. That's -- well, when you grow up...
JAMES...during the depression and all of that, you make do with what you've got. And the guy, throughout his entire life, you know, lived sort of a charmed life because he was everybody's favorite child. So...
NNAMDIOkay, thank you so much, James. We'll move onto Julie in Silver Spring, Md. Julie, your turn.
JULIEHi, Kojo, love the show. This happened a couple of years ago. My sister and I are both adults and we were both living on our own at the time and my mom told me that my sister was her favorite child. And that was not fun for me to learn that. And I just wondered what you thought about parents telling their children because it really threw me for an emotional and psychological loop. And to this day, my relationship with her is not great.
NNAMDIJulie, thank you so much for your call. We're going to get to an answer in just one second. Allow me to share what a few more people have shared with us. We got an e-mail from Rashon (sp?) who says "I have a favorite child and she is the second of three. I have one boy who is the oldest and two girls. She's my favorite because she reminds me of myself in looks, thoughts and actions and when I was a child. It's no secret because my whole family can see it and do not apologize for my favoritism."
NNAMDIAnd finally before we go back to our panelists, there is Joy in Rockville, Md. Joy, your turn.
JOYYes, this is a very important subject because it touched -- whenever it happens, it depends upon the vulnerability of the other children who know that they are not favored and it also hurts the -- it can hurt the favorite one depending upon that one's personality. And I know the favored one can feel very guilty about that, you know, and that's one reason I didn't have more than one child because I didn't -- I knew it would be hard not to show favoritism and I know how destructive it is.
NNAMDIThank you very much. You heard a fairly wide range there, Ellen, and right from James who felt it wasn't a problem for us, we used it to our benefit, to another caller who says when my mother told me that, it hurt my feelings, to somebody who says everybody knows I have a favorite and I don’t apologize for it. I'll start with you. What can be the effect of knowing that someone in the family is a favorite?
LIBBYI think that in everybody in a family knows what's going on. I don't think there are any secrets. I think what's hurtful is how the information is used. I think what is hurtful is how the information is conveyed. I think that the child -- I don't know, Julie, what your mother's intention was in telling you what she did, when she did. But I imagine that it's probably not out of character of something that maybe you had felt before and maybe you were surprised and taken off kilter when...
NNAMDIAnd Julie, apparently, is still off kilter as a result of that.
NNAMDIAbsolutely, because there's something very harsh and mean about the way in which Julie experienced it, the way in which it's conveyed. When people say to me so, okay, I know who's the favorite, what am I supposed to do, go home and make a proclamation? I don't think that we're talking about anybody going home and making a proclamation.
LIBBYI think what we're really talking about is the importance for people and families to acknowledge what's real, what's true, what's going on, for there able to be healthy discussions about it. And I think that when the information is used in a way that is mean or diabolical or undercutting, then there are some other issues in the family that absolutely deserve attention.
KLUGERYeah and I agree with everything Ellen says and I'd like to just add a little bit to it.
KLUGERI certainly agree that it's particularly important to be candid when kids ask, and that gives you a good opportunity to convey to them some of the ideas we had been talking about earlier which is I love all of my children equally. I love being with you in this context, I love being with your little brother in this context. There are ways that we all share things and I have special experiences with all of you.
KLUGERAlso, there is something to be said for a little benign cognitive dissonance. In other words, even if all families know there's a favorite, when it's not said explicitly and particularly not hurtfully unless, you know, the question is affirmatively asked, kids can have a little plausible deniability, and I found that in my household, that my mother -- it wasn't until her 70s that she slipped and admitted that Bruce was her favorite, but she would always insist it wasn't true.
KLUGERAnd in my more insecure moments as the non-favorite, I was always able to tell myself, well, mom insists it's not true, so maybe it's not. Also, holding a painful truth back, even if it's a truth everybody knows is itself an act of love. It's itself an act of compassion and gentleness, and I think kids feel that intuitively even if they're not consciously aware of it.
NNAMDIBut Ellen, there can be resentment from the kids who are not the favorite, however, being the chosen one isn't always a good thing, and you've apparently seen evidence of that in your own family.
NNAMDITell us about it.
LIBBYWell, I think what went on in my own family is not dissimilar from what goes on in many families. I think that we see throughout -- in our society that there are many, many favorite children who grow up and they end up in some ways feeling entitled and feeling that they're on top of the world, and they don't have the same level of responsibility. There are symptoms of depression, there are symptoms of drinking, there are symptoms of questioned morality.
LIBBYWe see that in Tiger Woods. You know, he was a perfect example of somebody who was a favored child, and we see that that certainly didn't help him in terms of grow up with the moral strength and integrity. What impelled me to write my book was actually when Bill Clinton was in the White House and everybody was so busy saying how could he have an affair with Monica Lewinsky. I mean, why would he throw this away?
LIBBYAnd one evening I was sitting with colleagues and they were involved in a lot of discussions trying to figure it out psychologically, and at the end of the discussion, I turned to them and said, you know, I think it's really simple. He was the favorite child, he grew up feeling entitled, he grew up feeling he could have what he wanted when he wanted to have it, and that was -- that's what he enacted. So it's very complicated business.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website and ask a question or make a comment, that's kojoshow.org. Does favoritism continue to haunt you as an adult? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDISiblings favoritism and family dynamics is what we're talking about with Ellen Weber Libby. She's a licensed psychologist practicing here in Washington D.C., and the author of the "The Favorite Child." Jeffrey Kluger is a senior writer and editor at "time" magazine and author of "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us."
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned Tiger Woods because the golden child is a familiar storyline in pop culture. We want to talk a little bit about how we've seen favoritism play out in famous fictional families, but see if you figure out which famous fictional family this comes from.
MS. EVE PLUMB AS JAN BRADYWell, all I hear all day long at school is how great Marsha is at this or how wonderful Marsha did that. Marsha, Marsha, Marsh.
NNAMDI"The Brady Bunch." That's where that came from.
KLUGERI swore it was Hamlet
NNAMDIWell, Jeff, how have we seen favoritism play out in famous fictional families?
KLUGERWell, one of our -- one of the callers earlier who mentioned the fact that I cited "Death of a Salesman" cited one of the very best examples.
KLUGERThe play is not just about Willy Loman and the loss of his career and the loss of his dignity. It's also about his sons and their failure to achieve their own dreams as well. And the more tragic of the two sons is the older one, Biff, who was demonstrably the favorite child and everybody in the family and indeed the neighborhood knew it. Well, later on, Biff's career essentially ended up on the shoals. He never really wound up anywhere, and in a candid and deeply painful moment late in the play, he says to Willy, I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air that I could never standing taking order from anybody.
KLUGERWhen Willy says, but Biff, your -- the door to your life is wide open to you, Biff says, we're a dime a dozen, pop, both of us. And it was a terribly painful moment, because not only is Biff tearing himself open and you see how empty he is inside, he's also telling Biff -- telling Willy that your greatest project, me, your oldest son, has come to nothing. Now, that's a terribly painful thing.
KLUGERGeorge W. Bush, granted we're not talking about fiction here, but I think in some ways he's another example of what Ellen was talking about. There -- he was -- he was perhaps not the favorite, but he certainly was the prince of that family, and I think it's perhaps no coincidence that he was notoriously said to be prickly about being challenged, or not being agreed with, and during that famous press conference late in his first term when he was asked, can you think of any mistakes you've made in your first term, he was unable to come up with any.
LIBBYThat seems to be the classic case of the preferred child or at least the first born who can't his brain wrapped around the idea that the world judges him more harshly than his dad did.
LIBBYIt's interesting that you bring up George Bush, because I think what is so interesting in the research is that every president since F.D.R. was a favorite child, and that certainly says so much about the skills that one gets from having been a favorite child, that in a particular way does serve our society well. The difficulty, of course, is for that person to grow up not feeling so entitled and not feeling so full of themselves that they make poor moral judgments or their lives are much emptier.
NNAMDIHere's an e-mail from Laura about an issue we really have not discussed. Laura says, "I'm the youngest child and only daughter of three siblings. My parents absolutely did not play favorites with my brothers and me. We were always given equal attention, love, resources, everything. As a result of that, my brothers and I have grown to be very close and there has never been any bad blood between us." What do you say to that, Jeff Kluger?
KLUGERWell, I think that's fantastic. I will say that certainly parents having no favorites, and not sort of exacerbating the innate rivalry kids feel and manifest is one way to keep them closer. But I'll also say that again, in the case of my brothers and I who grew up fantastically close and remain close, favoritism doesn't necessarily have to be something that shakes them apart.
KLUGERYour caller who grew up as one of 11 who said they always sent the baby into the family to wheedle treats or ask for a favor is exactly what kids are known to do. And one of the researchers I talked about -- talked to in the first story I wrote for "Time" on this said that, you know, kids are devilishly clever, and they'll be very good at exploiting a resource that typically they lament, but in certain situations, it can help them.
NNAMDIHere's Darryl in Washington D.C. Darryl, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARRYLHi, thanks Kojo. I was a favorite child, and I was the youngest child, and I always felt that because my mother was a different person, I mean, my oldest sibling is 12 years older than me. She was also widowed when I was five, so I grew up with a single woman who dated, who was very active, who had already done a lot of things as opposed to my sister who grew up with a mother, first child, a lot more racism them, this was in the early '60s when my sister was born, and I just feel like I grew up with a different mother.
DARRYLSo we have a different connection. And also, the other point is, they were able to see me as a child being treated as a child, and they didn't see themselves treated as a child. So of course it looked like I got favoritism. What do you think?
NNAMDIAge differences, Jeff Kluger, especially if they are more than a decade or so when children are at different stages, and in Darryl's case, the parent too.
KLUGERRight. And in some cases, that can be a very good thing. A good threshold for when you're gonna see a fair amount of sibling rivalry and regression in an oldest child, when a younger child is born, is about four. At four years old, the first born needs far far fewer of the kinds of attention that a newborn needs, where the baby needs constant attention, constant holding. Four is about the age at which kids start to move away from their parents and seek a little bit of independence.
KLUGERSo you're going to see less rivalry and less complaints about favoritism then. The bigger that gap gets, the bigger the difference in the lives the kids lead is. But it's also important to remember that in an intact family with no widowing, with no death, with no divorce, and in which the kids are born very close in spacing, there's still a dramatic difference each time a child is born because no child is born into the same family.
KLUGERThe first born is born into a family in which there no kids. The second born is born into a family in which there is one child, the third born into a family which there's two, and so on. So every environment is gonna be more of a micro environment.
NNAMDIAnd because we are running out of time, I'd like to move to another factor. Darryl brought up the age factor, but Ellen, another factor that can, rightly or wrongly, influence a child's role in a family is gender. How does gender influence preferences?
LIBBYIn my book, the part that I had the most fun writing was exactly that. That fathers' favorite daughters, fathers' favorite sons...
NNAMDII never had any daughters to favor.
KLUGERThat was -- that was a loss for the daughter and for you.
NNAMDII was ready -- I was ready to favor. But go ahead.
LIBBYBut all of those combinations absolutely affect how people end up living their lives. In general, mothers' favorite daughters we see tend to be much more involved with caretaking, both professionally they seem to be closer to home, they feel less free in the worlds. Fathers' favorite sons and fathers' favorite daughters tend to much more successful in the outside world, outside of the home.
LIBBYMany CEOs of companies, many women leading in science and so forth, tend to have been their fathers favorite daughters. So those kinds of gender differences are truly important in terms of how people grow up and develop.
NNAMDIAnother issue, this by way of a tweet from Bitter Divorcee, "please ask your guest to speak to divorce and favoritism, and special needs kids and family relationships." That's a lot, but I'll start with you, Jeff.
KLUGERSpecial needs kids in particular are a really interesting case, in part because this may be the best example all of human beings' ability to arise above our primordial roots. I mean, again, playing by black eagle rules, the special needs child should be absolutely dead last in the family's preference hierarchy because that child has often very little or no chance of reproducing successfully, but families will pour outsized resources, exponentially greater resources into the special needs child.
KLUGERThat's a function of love and compassion and devotion, and it needn't hurt the other kids terribly much as long as everybody is candid about it. Kids will say, look, healthy or not, I deserve my share of attention as well. But as long as parents talk about, as long as parents say we can all understand why we're devoting this kind of attention to your little brother or your little sister, it does make the favoritism, or it does make the outsized attention sting a little bit less.
LIBBYI'm not sure whether it's that that -- I'm not sure if it stings a little bit less because the parents say it, or because it's a family where the communication is open enough that people can speak their mind. The kids who are not favored, who don't have special needs can really put out their pain, their disappointment, their competitiveness, and that the parents can tolerate hearing it, and can respect that point of view.
NNAMDIAnd this e-mail we got from Emma in Washington, D.C. "How do you resolve problems with adult siblings when you were the favorite child? My sister is still resentful about the fact that my father clearly favored me. He has passed away so it leaves us to resolve it and I would like to repair things with my sister." Jeff Kluger?
KLUGERWell, again, as Ellen said, one of the most important things is openness and candor and an environment in which this has been able to be talked about all along. If it hasn't been, adulthood still isn't too late and it's unlikely that the unfavored and resentful sibling believes in any rational way that the favorite sibling cultivated this, manipulated her way into favoritism. The unfavored child probably knows that this was the parent's choice.
KLUGERIf there are ways for the siblings -- for the sisters to communicate that, one with one another, and sort of for the burden of the blame to be lifted off the favorite child, that's certainly one obstacle removed. But I think Ellen might answer this one better than I.
LIBBYOh, I think you're doing a wonderful job. I think the only thing that I would add to that is, but unfortunately, ultimately it takes two people to work out a relationship. And Emma and her sister both have to have desire to work out the relationship for it to get any better.
KLUGERThis is -- oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you brought that up, because for any adults in the audience now eagerly awaiting Thanksgiving so they can drop the knowledge they've acquired today on this broadcast on their unsuspecting siblings and parents, is it wise to seek closure on childhood grievances as an adult? Jeff?
KLUGERWell, it's wise if those grievances are open and haven't fully healed, and if it's an acknowledged problem between the two. It's also worth thinking that if one child has put this away, it doesn't pay for the other child who hasn't to seek to relitigate these old issues and come to some different conclusion. But I don't think there's anything wrong with unburdening themselves and sort of disclosing, I've never made full peace with this, can we share that information, can we talk that through a little bit.
KLUGEROne of the arguments I do make in my book is that sibling relationships, unless they are irreparably toxically broken, really are unique, and really are in most cases fixable. So I think people do themselves a great favor if they preserve the good relationships, and at the very least improve the fraught relationships.
NNAMDISo Ellen, I won't say to my brother, knives or guns?
LIBBYThat would be an interesting greeting, Kojo.
NNAMDIBut I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ellen Weber Libby is a licensed psychologist practicing in Washington D.C., and the author of "The Favorite Child." Ellen, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIJeffrey Kluger is a senior writer and editor at "Time" magazine, and author of "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us." Jeff, thank you for joining us.
KLUGERThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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