Patty grew up in a home in which her brother was the indulged favorite of her father. For most of her life she had lived in her brother’s shadow, emotionally neglected and overlooked by her parents. She knew the pain of receiving one gift for her birthday when her brother received three or four.
The Bible records the story of Jacob and Esau to warn us about the problems that can happen when a parent prefers one child and takes sides in the family (Genesis 25:19-34; 27). Jacob didn’t learn his lesson well, either. In turn he favored his son Joseph so much that his deeply jealous older brothers sold Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37). The Jewish inheritance system heavily favored the eldest son, though, and boys seemed to be valued more than girls.
Several of Jesus’ parables explore different aspects of fairness, and it’s worth rereading these stories to understand the challenge God has as He parents us in ways that are universally and eternally just.
- The parable of the welcoming father: Luke 15:11-32
- The parable of the unforgiving servant: Matthew 18:21-35
- The parable of the workers in the vineyard: Matthew 20:1-16
As you read these stories, reflect on the following questions:
- Where do I see myself in this story?
- How would I be feeling if I were each of the different characters in the story?
- What does this story tell me about God and His relationship with me?
- Which aspect of His love is most apparent in the story?
- How does God want me to show His love fairly to those around me?
One thing I am sure about is that God doesn’t play favorites. We are all equally loved, equally rewarded for our obedience and devotion to Him. Each one of us is His own very special child. So what can you do about favoritism in your family?
If you think you’re the favorite . . .
- If you think you’ve been the favored child, then you may be the best person to discuss the situation with your siblings and with your parents. Check out your siblings’ experiences to see what their perceptions are, too.
- If you sense that another sibling may feel left out or less favored, be creative about inviting your parents to help them feel special and included. Try making useful suggestions to your mom or dad: “Hey, when we go to New England for the weekend, let’s take Helen and Mary along, too!” “This shirt is just the right color for Stephanie. Maybe she’d really appreciate a surprise gift right now.” “Mom, I’ve been talking to Sam, and I think he’d love to chat with you this week.”
- Do all you can to pass any positive comments along to your siblings: “I was on the phone with Mom, and she was telling me just how much she loves reading the book you sent to her.” “Dad’s had that great picture of you and him on your fishing trip enlarged and framed. It’s hanging on his office wall at work.” And vice versa: “Mom, Bob e-mailed me and said how much he missed you. He was talking about the chocolate-chip cookies you used to send him at college. I bet he’d love it if you mailed him some this week!”
- Plan events at which your parents and siblings can meet together in an environment in which everyone will be at ease. You could take care of the hospitality and leave them to spend time reconnecting and creating positive memories with one another. Choose activities that will suit the interests of the people involved, perhaps doing the things they enjoyed doing together when you were children, such as hiking, sightseeing, playing games, or sports.
- Bring up the topic in conversation with your parents. “Wondering” can help you broach subjects gently, without judgment, so that you can explore another sibling’s perspective. You might say, “I was wondering how it feels for Kate-now that she’s left the church-to know that we’re all going to be at camp meeting together,” or “I wonder how we can do Christmas in a way that will make it easier for Thomas to come with his family.”
- When your parents have rejected one of your siblings and the relationship between them has broken down, pray that God will help you to mend the relationship. Be curious about what caused the breakdown in the relationship and what might bring reconciliation. Let them know that the rift in the family hurts everyone and that you’d like to see them reunited again. Explore creative ways that they can heal the relationship. Go out of your way to make a difference. Reassure your parents that showing love to their son or daughter does not mean they have to condone their lifestyle; it means they have a special opportunity to help their adult child experience God’s love and extravagant grace.
- If your parents have cut one of the children off from their inheritance or have made a will that looks unequal, try to find a way to manage this together so that no one feels isolated or rejected.
If you think you’re the unfavorite . . .
- If you’ve made lifestyle choices that differ from your parents’, or if you struggle with low self-esteem or depression, you may think that you’re the least-favorite child even if you aren’t. In 1997 Cornell University conducted a pilot study into the issue of retired mothers (65 to 75 years old) who admitted having favorite adult children. Most of the children agreed that their mother had a favorite, but only 40 percent correctly guessed their mother’s favorite, which shows how skewed our perceptions can be. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve been wrong all along. Sometimes we live out our life according to unhelpful misconceptions about our relationships with others.
- Explore the history of the idea that you are not the favorite child. What experiences did you have that caused you to feel this way? Then invite God into those painful situations. He is the perfect parent. Take the time to imagine how He might have responded to you in the different situations. None of your tears ever fell unnoticed by Him; none of your hurts wherever overlooked. He longs to put His arms around you and tell you that you are indeed His very special child.
- Find a close and trusted friend to talk to who knows how to comfort you well. Tell them about the times you felt hurt, overlooked, forgotten, or unloved, and ask them to be sad with you in your sadness. Help them to know the best way to soothe the hurts that you’ve never spoken about before. This is mourning “with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and it’s one of the best ways to comfort the pain in each other’s lives.
- Can you find someone who will affirm you in front of your parents? Leila was a perfectionist in the home and at work. She realized that she’d spent her life trying to be good enough for her parents to accept her. But no matter how hard she tried, they would always compare her with her older sister, Selina, who was a lawyer. After a weekend at Leila’s parents’ home, where her husband heard them belittle his wife, show little appreciation for anything she did, and speak at length about everything Selina was doing, he took the situation into his own hands. As they were saying goodbye he said, “I want you to know that Leila is the most perfect wife I could imagine. She is a great cook; a wonderful, loving mother; an amazing nurse; an inspiring spiritual companion. She is everything I could ever want in a wife. I am sorry that you don’t see all the beautiful things I see in her every day. I am the richest man on earth because of her.” Even though her parents continued to treat her the same way, Leila found that she didn’t need to be so perfect anymore. Her relationship with her husband was the important one now, and she knew that she more than pleased him.
- Read through the other sections of this article. Choose some ideas that you think will be useful for you and some of your family members to do together. Share the article with them and wonder what you can do together to help heal your family.
When your parent is still alive . . .
- Prayerfully gather the courage to talk to your parent.
- Before your conversation, ask God to help you stand in your parents’ shoes for a while so that you can see things from their perspective.
- Find a place and time you’re not rushed. Talk about what you appreciated about them as a parent. Say that you know it sounds silly-and you’re sure it wasn’t intentional-but you often feel as though they were more pleased with your brothers and sisters than they were with you. If possible, give a specific example of a time you felt less than favorite and why you felt that way. Explain that you’re bringing it up only because the idea is bothering you and you want to be able to put it aside. You want to have a good relationship with them as your parents, and you don’t want your misperceptions to get in the way of your closeness. This is taking the humble approach that Paul talks about in Romans 12-being mature enough to honor your parents above yourself.
- If this is too hard for you, talk to a sibling with whom you have a close relationship and ask them to help you talk with your parents. Maybe they could find a way to discuss this with your parents on your behalf, or they could use the ideas under the previous heading and work with you to improve your relationship with your mom or dad.
When your parent is no longer available . . .
- Talk to your siblings about your memories. Invite them to share their memories. Do this gently and perhaps with a touch of humor: “I know this sounds really strange now, but I used to think that you were Mom and Dad’s favorite.” Sometimes you might find that they thought you were the favorite! Help one another build up a collection of memories in which each of you were valued by your parents, and focus on those stories. Write your recollections down, if you can, and reread them when you need encouragement.
- Imagine that you are your parent, and write yourself a letter. Address your feelings of being the unfavorite by writing a letter that describes how much your parent valued you, what he or she especially enjoyed about parenting you, special memories of your relationship together, and an apology or comforting words that tell you how much they loved you.
- Remember that God has no favorites. We are all equally precious in His sight. When your thoughts about your human parents hurt and disappoint you, focus on God, the perfect parent, who is totally in love with you. Ask Him to comfort the pain in your life and help you to forgive your parents.
- Realize that you may not know all the secret hurts in your parents’ lives and why they may have behaved the way they did. Sarah discovered that her mother nursed her own mother through the final stages of breast cancer just after Sarah was born, and this interrupted the natural bonding process between them. James’s father died two weeks before he was born, so his mother invested special attention in the relationship with her new baby to help her recover from her deep loss. Each of these life events affected the very foundation of their mothers’ abilities to express love to them. When they understood what their parents had been through, it gave them a fresh perspective on the relationship they’d had with their mother and why it might have been different from the relationship their mother had had with their siblings.
As you try to confront and heal favoritism in your family, remember these final tips:
- Acknowledge that these issues are complicated and delicate. You need plenty of loving prayer and grace to help create a context in which healing and growth can take place.
- Pray that God will show you His ideas. Remember that He especially blesses peacemakers.
- If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to talk to a counselor, friend, or pastor.
- If you can’t change things, find a way to let go of the pain in your life and invite God’s spirit of healing and comfort to fill your heart.
Karen Holford is a freelance writer specializing in creative spirituality and family relationships. She has authored nine books and writes regular features for a number of Christian magazines. Besides holding a master’s degree in educational and developmental psychology, she is a qualified family therapist. Karen lives in Scotland, where her husband pastors a church in the hills. They have one teenage son and two adult children, and she tries very hard not to have favorites!
This article originally appeared in/on Women of Spirit.