Even if they don't say it aloud, or even consciously think it, it's normal for parents to have biases when it comes to their children, according to Washington, D.C., clinical psychologist Ellen Weber Libby in a 2010 article for "Psychology Today." However, when that personal preference crosses the line to discriminating against other children, the entire family dynamic can suffer. Discrimination is often two-fold in the same family: favored children feel pressure from too much attention, believing it's not fair for their lives to be under the microscope, while other children feel left out or ignored.
Being Too Hard
Parents sometimes single out one child to push harder than the rest, for a variety of reasons. They might push a gifted child to succeed academically, while paying less attention to the grades of other children. Or, parents can take a hard disciplinary stand with one child. This often occurs when that child has behavioral problems, but it crosses the line to discrimination when other children in the house aren't held to the same standard. An overweight child might feel constant pressure to drop weight, while other children in the household don't receive lectures about healthful eating. In a 2010 study reported at Time.com, University of North Texas in Denton researchers found that parents are less likely to help overweight children buy a car than they are to help children of average weight.
Being Too Lax
For some of the same reasons they are harder on one child, parents can choose to be too lax on others. Ignoring behavior problems and smothering that child with love and attention can discriminate against his siblings, who are held to a different behavior standard. A similar scenario is refusing to address the issue when a child is overeating and gaining weight, while insisting other children in the house reach for fruit instead of chips. When a child excels in school, parents might absolve themselves from helping her with her homework because they believe she doesn't need it as much as the other children, which can make her feel left out or alone. Parents might also refuse to punish their children equally if one is disabled in some way, either mentally or physically, often giving the disabled child a pass on discipline.
Mike Bishop, executive director of Wellspring, a weight-loss boarding school, told Time.com in 2010 that helicopter parents hover over their children in an attempt to protect them from emotional or physical harm and smooth their way in school and relationships. Parents can pick one child to hover over more than another. They might try to protect an overweight or disabled child from discrimination by his peers, not realizing that the extra attention they pay to that child is discriminating against their other children. Or, they can hover over a child who is constantly in trouble, while other kids in the house see their parents' actions as giving all their attention to a child who misbehaves while the responsible children get left out. Parents can weight their attention based on their children's genders, watching over a girl more than a boy, for example.
On the flip side of helicopter parenting is ambivalence; both often occur at the same time as parents focus attention on one child while discriminating against the others. This ambivalence can manifest in a variety of ways, including not caring -- at least, not caring as much as with the favorite child -- what time another child comes home, who his friends are, how he's doing in school or sports, what he's eating or how much exercise he gets. This attitude is also common in parents of disabled children, according to Education.com. Some parents push their disabled children toward independence while others assume there won't ever be true independence and allow the school system or caregivers to handle the majority of the decision making relating to that child.
- Psychology Today: The Favorite Child
- Why Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Daughters?; Sanjukta Chaudhuri
- Time: Do Parents Discriminate Against Their Own Chubby Children?
- Education.com: Parents' Reactions to Their Child's Disability
- The Slate: Your Mother Has a Favorite. It May Not Be You.
- Reuters: Heavy Kids Get Less Family Help With Buying a Car
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images