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Can Parents Love Each Child the Same and Treat Them Differently?

Mother's Day is Family DayReaders of a certain age may recall the sibling comedy team called The Smothers Brothers and the classic line Tommy delivered to Dick, “Mom always liked you best.” There are some who would tend to agree that parental preference contributed to their sense of self; either to their benefit or detriment.

Although parents may not love one child more than another, they may not always treat them the same since each is a unique individual. This topic came up in conversation recently with a parent of three boys. Each of these youngsters ranging from elementary to high school age, has a distinct personality, accompanied by challenges, exacerbated in part because of being part of a blended family in which the adults themselves came from backgrounds with varying parenting styles.

It also arose in the popular television show “This Is Us.” The flash back and fast forward drama highlights the multi-generational Pearson family in which three siblings, (triplets) their parents and extended relations reveal raw and real emotions and distinct needs. I am certain that there is at least one clinical consultant on the production team, since, the dynamics are not unique to this clan and the scenarios presented are true to life. I find myself, in between sniffles and moderate sobs, attempting to figure out the plot twists and lines in advance as they play themselves out on screen. In a recent episode, the two male siblings who were pre-teens were battling it out since their demeanors and interests, as well as communication styles were diverse and sometimes at odds with each other. Their sister had her own issues that had her requiring different treatment. The parents found successful ways of at least attempting to meet their needs.

As much as parents insist that they love each one the same, it is human nature to feel drawn to one child more than an another and it may not always be the one who is most like them. In my therapy practice I have had parents relate that they sometimes bump up against resistance with the offspring who reminds them of themselves. In a Time Magazine article entitled “How Parents Who Play Favorites Hurt the Entire Family”, author Olivia B. Waxman highlights a study conducted at the University of Toronto. The findings indicate that children who are treated differently, either intentionally or incidentally, are impacted negatively whether they are the favored or mistreated one.

A dynamic witnessed in my own family of origin plays out even to this day. I am the oldest of two girls; my sister is 2 ½ years younger. We exhibited vastly different personalities and behaviors. I was the more intellectual/cerebral/creative and she was the more kinesthetic/active. I had a series of health issues that required more direct attention from our parents and was perceived by her as somehow frailer, although I resisted that designation mightily. She took on the role of protector, that she tells me now, was reinforced by our father. I took on the role of “know it all big sister.” Although, on the surface it seemed our parents didn’t favor either of us, she might have felt that they did. Each of us had a unique relationship with our parents. She would likely say that she was more of a “daddy’s girl,” while I had a closer relationship with our mother.

A sampling of opinions about parenting styles, yielded varying perspectives.

“I think parents can gravitate to certain children over others and it’s not because they love them differently, some just click easily and for others, it’s a struggle to find common ground. At least, that has been my experience mothering four very different children. I have one daughter who constantly seeks me out and for that reason, we are closer when compared to her sister, who prefers her father’s company and often isolates herself in her room — no matter how much cajoling I try! I think for those children, you have to try extra hard to find something to bond over and that’s not always easy! My parenting has evolved a lot since my first child (I was 18) and my last (I was 31) and their experiences with me are night-and-day different. I think it’s very taboo for parents to admit they ‘like’ a child ‘better’ than another, but they are people, these are (intense) relationships that we are navigating – it is impossible for them to be loved, liked, treated the ‘same’. And different doesn’t mean less than… Just my two cents!”

“I once read an article regarding the relationship between parents and adoptive children. The central idea of the article was the idea that we find a deeper connection between ourselves and people who are similar to us. So, children of life-long jocks will tend to be athletic in the first place and likely will have an interest besides because of their natural ability in the area. Bond. Children of nerds (like mine) tend to be very smart and will have an interest in learning as do their parents. Bond. So, what happens when a jock-child is adopted into a nerd-family or vice-versa? My adopted child’s talents/interests and my own do not align and therefore we won’t bond as closely as my child whose talent/interest do align. This does not mean that they are any less mine or that I love them any less. But I may very well bond with my own child more than an adopted child because that is the nature of things.

So, to your questions, I think that within a genetic (non-adoptive) family, this can still occur to a greater or lesser extent. Would I love a jock-child? Of course, but I will bond more closely with a nerd-child. An emotionally healthy parent will still treat each child the same to the best of their ability, but I think biases are inescapable. And for a less-healthy parent it can be bad for the kid.”

“I raised my children with same house rules consistently which gave fairness. First, one to push, hit etc., first one right or wrong would have the consequences. They all had chores which made them feel part of the family. School was the priority chore and they were responsible for all schoolwork and I would suggest when to be done, however they chose (started in Kindergarten). How I parented the children on issues, events or circumstances were based on their personalities. The two oldest have graduated college in 4 years and have successful careers. The youngest is still in school and time will tell.”

“Having three kids and fostering/raising some others years ago, there is an intuition required to navigate house rules and the individuals. One kid wilted if we corrected her, one rebelled and one being special needs, namely Autism, was another parenting manual altogether. It takes constant monitoring and presence — [being in] the present moment to determine the scale of discipline given the latest offense. ABC, as my Dad taught me — Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence — What started the behavior. What is understood about the outcome. I have spent their whole lives saying, This and That, as a way to create context for understanding themselves, each other, friends, teachers, their father and me.”

“As one of six, I can say that Mom pulled off making everyone feel special in a unique way. Her idea was always that needs are different, love is not. I can’t think of one of my siblings who doesn’t feel the same way … I will say that as the first child, I wasn’t allowed to do some things my siblings were permitted, but that was a function of growing confidence rather than favoritism. I did get to use this once when an Indian (from India) 11-year-old asked me ‘Were you British … [and then] so then why are you not part of the Commonwealth?’ A great question. I said, ‘Well, we were the first child of the Empire, and parents are always strictest with the first, aren’t they?’ Most eldest children smiled and agreed. ‘So, we had to have a revolution. The younger ones.’ Everyone’s laughter supported the point.”

“My sister and were definitely NOT treated the same… too many differences to list! Gender differences were excuses, when we were born (I was the oldest so I should know better…), and double standards when it came to us hitting each other! I was always on the losing end of that scene!”

“Having two, my attention first and foremost went wherever it was needed. May have felt uneven at times with the other sibling. However whichever one was feeling the lack, I always tried to make extra special alone time with them.”

“I read a parenting article many years ago called ‘The Folly of Fairness’. It was excellent, pointing out not only that ‘life is not fair’ but a wiser approach in raising children is to encourage them to ‘rejoice in their brother’s (sibling’s) good fortune’ when it appears one is being blessed or rewarded in some way over another. This makes sense to me, the idea of ‘compassion training’ because our selfish human tendency is to think of ‘me, first’. For example, I’m at a yard sale and find overalls that would be perfect for my 3-year-old son. Am I now obliged to find something perfect for the 5-year-old, or 1-year-old, or whatever as a result? Doing so sets my kids up to expect that from the world at large (i.e., life is not fair). Instead encouraging them to ‘rejoice’ (‘Hey, this is great! New overalls for Aidan!’) and patiently wait for the moment when they are the ones unexpectedly blessed. I didn’t read previous comments but will also mention that as you point out, since each child is unique, try first to respond to that. But also, consistency in discipline when specific family rules are broken — if 5 minutes of time out is the rule for taking food out of the kitchen, it applies to everyone (parents, too!).”

An ancient reminder comes from Proverbs 28:21 “Playing favorites is always a bad thing; you can do great harm in seemingly harmless ways.”

Can Parents Love Each Child the Same and Treat Them Differently?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). Can Parents Love Each Child the Same and Treat Them Differently?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Nov 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.