differential treatment and family favouritism

“And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.”

That statement from ancient scriptures paints a clear picture of the side effects of differential treatment or favouritism among children in a family. It also elucidates the fact that differential treatment is not new, but rather a deep rooted problem to which parents must give adequate attention. The purpose of this article is to address the issue of differential treatment in families: The insidious nature of differential treatment, causes, negative effects and what parents can do to alleviate the negative impact of differential treatment on their families.


The term, differential treatment, is a rather broad social science term that covers racial discrimination, discrimination in the work place, family, etc such that one person or group is disadvantaged. However, for the purpose of this article, differential treatment can be defined as any difference in treatment giving to children under similar circumstances such that one child is at a disadvantage or shown less love, care or concern. For example, sometime ago, I was called in to provide home lessons for the children in a family. The mother told me that one child, let us call her Ruth is loved by all so no matter the charges, it will be paid. The second child that I will call Pamela was not that loved so she(the mother) has to be the one to pay that child’s fees. Even the father will hesitate to pay. While this might appear a little bit extreme, it is a typical example and be sure that there are many examples above or below that. If you take your mind back to growing up in your family, there is a high probability that you will remember that one person who was given whatever he/she asked for. There was someone who was trusted with the parent’s room keys or huge sums of money. There was that person who could break/damage something important yet go scot-free, there could have even been someone who was an intercessor - If you need something and you channel it through that person you are sure to get it. A bad report about them is treated with kid gloves (he/she is just a kid your parents say) but if you try same thing, you face a family tribunal.


There are many causes of differential treatment in families. The interesting thing about it is that sometimes, the causes seem to be out of the parents’ control. For example, the typical Nigerian family places more value on a male child. If a family is expecting a male child and keeps getting female children, when the male child arrives on the scene, he becomes the instant favourite. In some cases, a particular child’s physique or attitude might just be so much in sync with that of the parents that he/she is beloved. It could be a matter of interest. Parents who are academicians tend to love the academically brilliant child than the one that shows a greater interest in sports or entertainment. Some children can be affected by either negative or positive events that closely follow or precede their birth. A child that came as a result of failed family planning or whose birth was accompanied with a job loss might not be loved so much. Contrast that with a child whose birth closely preceded a juicy job. The list of possible causes is endless. The most important issue however is the existence of the problem and the acceptance by the parents to tackle it head on. Some parents might deny the existence of differential treatment in the family, but the truth is that the children are very sensitive enough to know that it really does exist. When parents are not ready to admit the existence of differential treatment in their family, it poses more problems. This is because, if you accept the problem is there, you might find a solution, but if you are feigning ignorance of the problem, you wont make any conscious effort to find a solution. The fact that almost all parents do have a favourite child(the existence of differential treatment in families) has been proven time and again by several scientific studies. Jeffrey Kluger, an American science writer, in his Book The Sibling Effect: What the Bond among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us is quoted as saying: “ It is my belief that  95 percent of the parents in the world have a favourite child, and the other 5 percent are lying”  There are several studies to support this claim and though not all of them quote such outrageous or seemingly over bloated figures, the fact remains that the problem does exist.


There are endless problems caused by differential treatment in the family. Interestingly, the negative effects are felt both by the favoured as well as disfavoured child/children. The most important ill effect of differential treatment however is the resentment and sibling rivalry that ensues. As can be clearly seen from the opening quote which was taken from ancient scriptures, Joseph was hated by his brothers because he was his father’s favourite. His father’s love and trust made him ideal as an informant to the father and of course, “Joseph brought unto his father their evil report “. In addition to Joseph’s dreams, there was sufficient reason for his brothers to plot his death. Similar situations still obtains today, some more severe than others. In a family with evident differential treatment, the favoured child is normally resented and hence others tend to make a mountain out of a mole hill whenever he/she err. Others will be unlikely to forgive him/her easily and would want to get even. This can be a source of constant fights. There is unhealthy competition for parental attention and a general lack of cooperation among the siblings. The parents are not left out in the allocation of resentment. Disfavoured children can also resent their parents for a long time
When the parents pass away, there are often arguments even at the burial about the love received by the favoured child. One of my uncles passed away recently. But before he passed away, he spoke his last words to his first daughter who has been his favourite child and hence was always close to him. When the first son heard this, he fussed and fumed that his position has been over thrown by his sister.  Parents must grow old. At this point in time, the rest might expect that the favoured child should shoulder the bulk of care giving. If the care giving is passed to any of the children who were normally discriminated in the family, they often use this as an opportunity to make reference to the partial treatment they received from their parents. Psychologists seem to have an agreement on the effect of love and care received while growing up on self confidence and a positive self image. Children who were discriminated against in the family while growing up might grow up with a feeling of unworthiness, low self esteem and a constant search for love outside the family. The favoured children might grow up with guilt in their later years. Sometimes, the pampering received might actually impinge on their sense of responsibility and hence their success in later life.


How can parents defuse the time bomb of differential treatment? This is a very tricky aspect of the whole topic. The tricky nature of this aspect of the topic stems from the insidious nature of favouritism among children. You can however take the following steps towards defusing the time bomb of discrimination among children.
First, you must admit that the issue is there and therefore demands your attention. Psychologists are divided on whether you should admit this to your children or not. Personally, I am of the opinion that you admit it to yourself but not to your children. The essence of acceptance is that if you don’t accept the issue is there, you won’t take action.

A careful introspection is essential. Remember that we are creatures of habit. We can set a particular time every weekend for a review of our activities and dealings with the children. This will afford us the opportunity to spot any deliberate or inadvertent actions or speech that tend to suggest you are playing favourites. It must be clear that there are no favourites. If you have shown a tendency within the period under review to tilt the scale of love, you can make a deliberate effort to balance it in the coming week. Depending on your schedule, this pensive analysis might be done monthly or even quarterly. But don’t let it take too long. Remember that the passing of time takes us a drifting and everything by longevity tends to go off course

Parents must recognize and appreciate every child as the unique person they truly are. All children are endowed with great gifts. Recognize and appreciate this gifts rather than making comparisons.  If we were all exactly the same, the whole world will be too boring. Encourage them to express their gifts rather than to copy or just follow after their siblings. If a child is performing poorly, encourage them and give them the support they need to do better. Make them aware that as steve Bow once pointed out, God’s gift to us is more talent and ability than we can ever use in one lifetime, our gift to God is to make the most (develop)  as much of that talent and ability as we can in this life time. Challenge them to do better while, building in them the awareness that they have an inexhaustible store house of wisdom, encourage them to think, to use the power of their minds, and most importantly, let them know that you have a strong believe in their ability to do better.

Constantly reassure them of your love. Use every opportunity you get to speak and demonstrate to them how much you love them. Teach them to appreciate the fact that it takes each of us to make all of us. Let them know that it behooves them to show a unique appreciation for the each of us that makes all of us. It is common knowledge that a single tree cannot make a forest. As Jim Rohn will say, one person cannot make a family, One person cannot make a country, One person cannot make a market place, one person cannot make a symphony orchestra.

It is important that you are approachable to your children. Make them feel free to openly discuss issues with you. When you do this, they will be able to freely express their concerns. This will give you the chance to explain yourself and apply the point of reassurance discussed above.

Teach and practice forgiveness. Don’t give the impression that you are super human and infallible. Learn to forgive them and correct them with love. When they have imbibed this culture of genuine forgives, they will be able to easily forgive one another and also forgive you when you err. This of course includes when you inadvertently display signs of favouritism. They will understand that things of this nature are bound to happen since we are imperfect.

As mentioned earlier, sometimes, unpleasant feelings might be associated with a child due to several factors e.g circumstances surrounding the birth. Maybe the baby came when you were going through a really rough time and you had to go through even more difficulties. Maybe the child looks like someone you don’t really like and so any time you see the child, you remember the person. Maybe the child came as a result of failed family planning and the list goes on and on. Whatever unpleasant feelings you have associated with the child, remind yourself that the baby did not directly cause those events. Remember that you can’t have a better past. Forgive yourself and forgive the baby or whoever is also involved and move on with your life. Love the child, recalling that every child is a blessing from God.

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differential treatment and family favouritism

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