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Playing Favorites
"I love them equally," insists every parent of two
or more children. But can you? Should you?

By Anthony Brandt

When my brother and I were kids Mom would make it plain every Christmas morning while we sat around the tree tearing the wrappings off our gifts that she and Dad had spent the same amount of money on each of us, "to the penny," she said. I believe it, too. She had a kind of grim determination that could be awesome in practice and I can see her sitting down with pencil and paper, adding up what everything had cost, down to the last piece of candy in our stockings, making sure it came out even. It was a powerful lesson. No way would she play favorites.

No way would I, either, when I had kids. But it isn’t that easy. I had two kids, too, a girl and a boy; and you find out right away that you have a different relationship with each one, and you can’t help it. They themselves are different, first of all, not just because one may be a girl and the other a boy but because, from Day One, they’re different people. One is tough, say, the other tender; one may be ambitious, the other as laid-back as a turtle dove; one is dark and moody, the other all light and air. They’re born, furthermore, into different circumstances. When Kate, my daughter, was born, I was a grad student and my wife, a nurse, was working shifts at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, so we traded child care duties every day. She went to work and Kate was mine for eight hours. I changed diapers, fed her, bathed her, took her for walks, played with her. I was total Dad and it had nothing to do with the women’s movement. We had no money, couldn’t afford child care, these were the circumstances. Deal with it, Dad. So I did.

Four years later we had Evan and by then we were living on an old country road surrounded by woods and meadows, I was commuting to my job in New York every day and my wife had taken a year off to be full-time mother. I didn’t spend the same amount of time with him, seldom had to change his diapers, seldom bathed and fed him. And Evan was very different from Kate. Evan was an easy-going, happy kid loaded with charm. Kate was never easy-going. She was smart, tough, demanding. She could be sweet, she could be cranky, but she was always a handful.

And this is only part of the equation; there’s my wife to consider as well. She had never been entirely comfortable with Kate, who was not the pliable ‘nice’ child she had hoped for. My wife thought of herself as a kind of Lady Midwest, upbeat and cheerful. So when she decided to be a full-time Mom what did she get? A child who was easy to care for, in every sense of the word. Who was upbeat and cheerful. Can you see it coming?

It took a few years but inevitably and maybe unavoidably, Evan became "hers"—her favorite. And Kate, who was, in the rapidly developing family mythology, more like me, supposedly became "mine."

Meanwhile there I was, trying to live by my own mother’s precepts. Play no favorites. Give them each the same amount of attention, the same amount of love. Make sure they understand that neither is in any way "better" than the other, "special," more satisfying to you as a parent. Try doing that when one of them is more satisfying. To the other parent. Mom, where were you when I needed you?

My kids are grown now and when people ask me how they are I always say they’re happily married and gainfully employed, and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to say it because it wasn’t always so. I am no longer married to their mother. One of the reasons I left my wife was for just this reason, that she did play favorites, couldn’t help herself in fact, and it made for big trouble. Not least for me. I resented the family myth, resented it deeply, because I had to try to compensate for it. I had to be harder on my son than she was and at the same time try to get close to him, to let him know I loved him as much as she did. I also had to be a strong father to my daughter, who had a painful rebellious adolescence triggered, I still believe, by that same favoritism that made her, in the family myth, the "problem" child.

I failed to find the right balance with her, failed big time. I was less than a great father. My children spent a season in hell. You live with the guilt for a long, long time. Raising kids is not a horse race; play favorites and you lose every time. They lose even more. Resentment becomes a way of life for the one or two outside the inner circle. The favorite gets emotionally spoiled and comes to feel emotionally entitled. Family myths develop and the true nature of each child’s personality gets distorted.

All in all my wife was a good mother and I was hardly infallible as a father—quite the contrary. But I didn’t have a favorite and I would have done everything in my power not to show it if I had. Because Mom taught me well.

I discovered when I was an adult that my parents hadn’t wanted me. They didn’t think they could afford to raise me. My mother tried to abort me every way short of illegal, which abortion was in those days. But she never let on and never treated us differently. We were and still are enormously different. My brother is a Republican, I’m a Democrat. He has spent his life in our home town; I don’t have a single friend left from high school. Mom was fully aware of the differences; she used to talk about them with me when I came to see her and complain about my brother that she couldn’t talk about things like that with him. That’s another difference. My brother is more closed off emotionally than I am.

But we grew up equally loved and we learned the same lesson. My brother has six kids and I’ve never seen him show a single sign that he favors one over the rest. Each child is different and you grow different relationships with each one; that’s a given. But your love for each is the same, it’s one of life’s absolutes, and God forbid you should contaminate it with partiality.

Do that and believe me you’ll pay for it, and so will they. I’ve seen it happen, up close and personal.

Anthony Brandt is a writer who lives on Long Island.

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