“Mom, who’s your favorite,” someone called from the backseat of my tiny Honda Civic.
“My favorite what?” I replied without looking back.
“Your favorite child.”
I had no idea who was asking this question but I wasn’t surprised by it. This was the first time my kids had brought it up. At the time I had only three of the total five kids I would eventually have.
My oldest, Netika, was seven at the time. I called her my mature child. Her little siblings called her bossy. She was always well mannered, did what she was told and helped out with her siblings. Even then, as we drove to the store, I had strategically placed her between her brother and sister to keep them from fighting. If I ever needed to know who had started what, I just had to ask Netika, or as I sometimes like to called her, “the informer.”
Her younger brother, Richie, had always been considered my smart child. I thought six years old was a little young for that kind of high-pressure label, but he would keep it throughout his school career by excelling at everything he put his mind to. Richie had been a cranky toddler who would dramatically throw himself on the floor or ground and proceed to scream so loud and high pitched I was sure people blocks away must have thought some woman was in deadly peril. But by age six he had mellowed. He was inquisitive, sweet, and did what he was told. Of course he pestered the hell out of his sisters but what brother doesn’t?
My youngest, Nicie, was four then. She was a little terror who knew too much for her own good. Since age two, whole sentences fell out of her mouth with words I never remembered using around her. She was also my baby, with a face that usually had a smirk that made me think she was about to get into something. But she could be the sweetest thing when she wanted something.
I weighed all these characteristics as I considered the question. Like any sane parent, even if I had an opinion, I wouldn’t have been cruel enough to announce my choice to this favored child while the other two kids looked sadly on. So, I gave the answer we all give.
“I love you all the same.”
“Okay, but which of us do you like the best?”
Damn that Richie; he was too smart for his own good.
“It’s Nicie,” Netika announced. “You spoil her and you take her everywhere.”
I did take Nicie everywhere. If I left her with anyone else she would either cry or find trouble to get into. As a single mother who worked full time and had the endless amount of errands mothers always seem to have, it seemed easier to take Nicie with me while the older two were watched by an aunt or older cousin.
“I don’t like Nicie the best, it’s just easier to drag around one of you than all three. I really do like different things about all of you.”
I don’t think this answer satisfied them. But it felt like the most honest answer I could give. As parents we try to avoid favoritism, but kids can vibe off of our reactions to them and come to their own conclusions. I know that I can get defensive when anyone, especially my kids, point out that they see clear favoritism.
Six years after Nicie was born, I had my daughter Tiesha, who we all refer to as Shy. Shy looked exactly like me and she was the brand new baby. When I was accused of favoring her I pointed out that as a baby Shy needed me more. Four years later, when my son Tevin was born and his siblings accused me of favoring him I used the same excuse. Even though I tried not to show favoritism, I wondered if my kids felt I treated them differently, and if that had changed as they grew older.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D, who has been in private practice for over thirty years, says in her article, When Favoritism Becomes Abuse, mothers and fathers commonly prefer one child to another for many conscious and unconscious reasons. Sometimes the preference is grounded in family history that goes back generations and other times the preference is transitory and lasts for only hours, days, or weeks.
I decided to revisit this subject with my kids now that they were older. As I began to text my three older kids about the subject, I realized that I had a good idea who they would say I favor. Knowing that, I wondered if I had shown favoritism all these years without realizing it.
Netika, who is 29 years old now, gave an answer that was pretty close to what I expected.
“I definitely think you always favored Richie,” she said slowly. “But I don’t think you really realized you were doing it. Like, when I would tell you he’d done something wrong, you didn’t punish him.”
“Really?” I said. I was already feeling defensive. “I honestly don’t remember you or Richie ever really getting in trouble.”
This was true. Netika and Richie were those rare kids who always did what they were told, took honor classes in school, and helped out with their younger siblings without complaining.
“Well when we were younger then, I guess,” Netika added. “But I also feel like you and Richie have more in common, so that might be part of it.”
That made sense. Richie and I are both complete comic book nerds. He has probably read most of my collection of around 4,000 comic books and started his own as well. When the Marvel movies started coming out it became tradition for Richie and I to watch them together in the theater, which we did without fail until he moved to California. We also both like plays and musicals, so when I happen to get tickets, he’s the one I invite to go with me. As an actor/model who sometimes writes short bits for plays, Richie can also relate to my own struggles as writer.
I asked Nicie the question via text. She text back later that day.
ME: Lol okay. Why?
NICIE: Idk they seem to disappoint you less lol.
I laughed at this. My daughter and I tease each other a lot, but there was a half vote for Richie.
I decided to call Richie after I saw he hadn’t text back with his answer yet.
“I’d say I’m your favorite,” Richie began. “But there are different factors you have to consider. You always worked with a lot of men and most of your friends have been guys, so you relate to them more. Since Tevin and I are your sons, you’ve always gotten along with us better. But you weren’t much older than Netika and me when you had us, so as we got older you were more like friends with us. Tevin is only 16, so you still have to be a mom to him, while you and I have had a friend relationship for a while now.”
I realized I was nodding as he spoke. Richie also brought up that we had more in common. “And then there’s the underlying factor that’s going to make me sound a bit egotistical,” he continued.
“What’s that?” I asked.
My son then spoke for a good five minutes about how charismatic he was and all the proof there was to show this to be true, and that this was not just his opinion. Now I was shaking my head. What had I created?
My daughter Shy had a similar answer to Netika. Tevin’s answered surprised me.
“I don’t think you have a favorite. I think you have more in common with some us than others. You have a lot in common with Richie, so you guys have a lot to talk about and when he visits you have more stuff you can do with him.”
So there it was. Whether I had meant to or not, I had made it clear that one of my children seemed to be favored the most. Even if it was a result of different factors, the main one being that we have more in common, all my children were aware of it. Just as I had been before I asked them.
Libby says in her article that what is critical, is that all children trust they are loved and appreciated for what makes them special. Love is unconditional, whereas favoritism is not. Favoritism depends upon children behaving in ways that gratify parents.
What surprised me when my kids gave their answers was that none of them seemed bitter about it. They all know I have worked equally hard for all of them, and have loved them as much as I could. If I’m honest with myself, I do get along with my sons better. Part of that is because my daughters act too much like me. We are stubborn, bossy, and don’t like to admit when we’re wrong. Those qualities have made us strong women, but it also means that we occasionally butt heads.
I can’t deny that Richie is the child I go to when I need someone to critique my writing. He is my first choice when watching Marvel movies, and my first choice to go to Comic Con with me.
But when I consider the rest, Netika is my go-to child if I ever want to talk about Spidergirl or Harley Quinn. Nicie has become an amazing mother and we can talk for hours about my grandsons and raising kids. Shy and I discuss our relationships and our feelings. Tevin and I have spent months bringing the anime “Naruto” together.
Five kids is a lot. But I know I love them all equally. I think I’ve managed to find common ground with each of them as they grew older. Although they are all aware I share more hobbies and passions with one, what’s become important to me is that they all know I love them, and if they need me they can call on me, and I will be there for each of them in equal time.