Who, deep down, doesn’t believe their parents had a favourite child? It’s part of the family narrative we create for ourselves, whether or not it was actually true, and whether we are aged 15, 50 or 80. I once interviewed a woman on her 100th birthday who said that her achievement in longevity was one in the eye for her (long dead) mother, who had always preferred her younger brother – and he ‘hadn’t even managed to get to 70’.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that, when pushed, many parents and grandparents quietly admit having a favourite child or grandchild. In a survey by Mumsnet and its sister Gransnet last year, almost one in four parents confessed to having a favoured child, and 42% of grandparents said they had a preferred grandchild.
Why you shouldn't feel bad about a favourite
It’s not something they were particularly proud of, though: half of both parents and grandparents felt bad. Actually, they shouldn’t feel ashamed, according to psychotherapist Philippa Perry, author of the bestselling The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. It’s perfectly natural to prefer one child over another, but that shouldn’t be confused with loving them more or less.
‘The truth is we don’t love children or grandchildren the same – we love John like we love John and Mary like we love Mary. As human beings, we are more complex than to love two people the same,’ she says. ‘There will be a child we understand more easily – but if there’s a child we understand less easily, we wouldn’t be any less devastated if something awful happened to them.’
Where it can get toxic, she argues, is when the parent or grandparent puts the children in a hierarchy. This complex but destructive dynamic tends to be passed down in families from one generation to the next – so when you add a third generation, grandchildren, it can get even more tangled because the middle generation ends up re-enacting unresolved old rivalries.
‘I remember once I was out for a picnic with my father and my daughter and her cousins, and I noticed when we were leaving that there were some orange juice cartons on the ground of the same brand they’d been drinking. I asked my daughter if they were hers and she said, “Whoops – yes,” and picked them up. My father was full of praise for her and said how honest she was, not like “those other children” – my sister’s children. I was struck by the fact that he could not just praise her, he had to criticise his other grandchildren. I even got a moment of euphoria because I felt I had somehow won a very old battle, like a little bird in a nest, but then felt ashamed by my reaction.’
Psychologist Linda Blair agrees that with accusations of having favourite grandchildren, the problem lies with the middle generation because it reawakens complex old sibling dynamics. It’s usually the one who felt hard done by as a child who is most likely to feel their own children are getting a raw deal from grandparents. ‘It’s a case of “I was the middle child. You overlooked me as a kid and now you’re overlooking my kids”. They’re not conscious of it but it’s sparking those old first-foundation feelings laid down when we are forming our brains, and which we always revert to when we are feeling emotional unless we make a conscious decision to do otherwise.’
Like Philippa, she feels it’s inevitable you’ll have a child or grandchild you click with better (although it’s a matter of compatibility not love, she stresses). That might be because they are like you, or remind you of a favourite sibling, or share your interests: ‘A grandparent may see in their grandchild passions of their own that they hoped could flower and now they see it flowering beneath them.’
Is the funny child the favourite?
In the Gransnet survey, half of those who had a favourite said it was the one who made them laugh the most, with 41% saying it was ‘the easy one’. An only granddaughter in families with grandsons were a favourite too (16%).
Linda thinks there’s probably some truth in the oldest grandchild being a common favourite. ‘Just as the first child was so special because it was the first time you experienced that role, having the first grandchild is similar. You have the pleasure and opportunity to devote all your energy to one child again, and that exclusivity and lack of other distractions makes it very special.’ There’s also anecdotal evidence that a daughter’s children are favoured, probably because they see each other more often, as daughters often stay closer to their mothers and are more likely to ask their advice. The author Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall calls the mother’s mother Number One Granny.
With favourites, the important thing is how you act, not how you feel, Linda stresses. Grandparents are in a tricky position because they have two generations to please. ‘Grandparents shouldn’t feel guilty about sharing a grandchild’s passion, as long as they balance out the time and interests between them. Have “own” time you spend with each grandchild rather than doing the same with all of them,’ she advises.
‘If there’s one you don’t instinctively click with, ask them what activities they’d like to do with you and take it from there. Keep a rough eye on the time you’re spending with each, but also be aware that quality is more important than exact hours. It’s up to grandparents to handle it well, but in my experience there aren’t many grandparents who don’t try their absolute best to be fair.’
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