Avoiding The “F” word: Favouritism

Parental favouritism is defined as the perceived or actual practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one child at the expense of another. In many instances, even when parents are determined to treat their children equally, they soon find that this is easier said than done. There are many different kinds of favouritism and various reasons for playing favourites, some of which are:

  • One child has more in common with one or both parent(s) than the other either in terms of gender, character or behaviour.
  • Spending more time with one particular child and not enough with the others.
  • Birth order: parents favour first- and last-born children over middle children.
  • Parents are more responsive toward children who are pleasant and more affectionate.
  • Favouring a high-achieving child rather than the average or underachieving one.

Favouritism is practiced (either consciously or subconsciously) by many parents. However, it starts becoming problematic when there are consistent, evident and arbitrary differences in treatment between siblings.

It Affects All

Favourite children grow up with a high level of self-esteem (albeit sometimes distorted or misguided). However, they are also often under the impression that rules don’t apply to them. Furthermore, they are likely to struggle with intimate relationships and are most likely to be alienated and disliked by other siblings.

Unfavoured children grow up vulnerable to feelings of defeat, believing that hard work and determination will not reap the rewards they desire. They also increase risk of mental health problems such as aggression, attention, and emotional problems (i.e. depression and/or anxiety).

Parents observing their spouses inappropriate attachment to one child are likely to be uneasy. The mental health of these parents as well as their parenting skills are at risk. There’s also a good chance that this destructive behaviour will be emulated and “passed on” onto the next generation.


Fair Is Not Equal

  • Adjust your expectations to be more appropriate to your children’s ages, learning curves, personality, etc.
  • Any chores or responsibilities around the house (i.e. take out garbage, mop the floor, and clean table) should be delegated fairly between siblings even the youngest of them – once they are able to of course. Everyone should contribute, but remember to keep tasks age appropriate.
  • Spend some quality one-on-one time at least once a week with all your children. Just a few minutes of attention, reassurance and a show of affection can mean a whole lot.
  • Provide each of your children the same opportunities to succeed. Managing your parental resources (e.g. love, attention, money, etc.) to suit the needs of each of your children can be difficult. So, plan ahead and don’t be ashamed to seek advice or ideas from more experienced parents (i.e. your own parents or friends) or even professional family counsellors.
  • Make sure any rewards, gifts or punishments received are proportional to a child’s age. You shouldn’t react to a 3-year-old’s tantrums in the same way as you would to a 13-year-old’s or buy the same gift for your 17-year-old who does well in her SPM as your 12-year-old who scored in UPSR.
  • Discuss and always seek advice and support from your spouse. Sometimes some of our mistakes are only obvious when our actions are viewed from a different perspective.

Every child is different and parents must respond to their unique characteristics and needs appropriately – one size DOESN’T fit all. Ultimately, all your children, no matter how many you have, are different and beautifully unique in their own way – appreciate and celebrate that fact. Try your best to stay aware of any differential treatment you might give and try to be as fair as possible.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.

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