Family Matters

Playing Favorites? Why Some Parents Do Love Their Kids All the Same

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Apparently, I have the world’s three most amazing kids because try as I might, I can’t pick a favorite. With all due respect to my colleague, Jeffrey Kluger, who wrote last week’s controversial and well-read TIME cover story based on what is bound to be his controversial and well-read book on the same topic, I take issue with his premise that all parents harbor a preference for one child.

And so, by the way, does my 6-year-old daughter — the proverbial ignored middle child who one might think doesn’t get enough loving, being jammed in there just two years after her brother’s arrival and two years before her sister’s debut. As she sat on my lap over the weekend, watching a video about Jeff’s story that she’d absentmindedly clicked on, her expression darkened with the first sentence: “All parents, regardless of what they say, do have a favorite child.”

“I don’t like that video,” she said. “Turn it off!”

She swiveled around to look at me. “You don’t have a favorite child, do you?” she asked.

“What do you think?” I responded.

“No,” she answered firmly. “You love us all the same.”

MORE: Playing Favorites: Why Mom Likes You (or One of Your Siblings) Best

Whew…she fell for that tired old line that all parents use. But in my case, it’s true; pinky promise. I will always remember sobbing the morning I went into labor with her. I had no idea how I could ever love another child as much as I loved her older brother. He was inquisitive, with sky-blue eyes and freckles. He called helicopters “hebbalockers” and could identify individual airplanes zooming high above. But then she arrived, and she too was inquisitive, with gray-blue eyes and an offset dimple. She leads our family in yoga on weekends and assembles elaborate zoo scenes with her stuffed animals. The trend of blue-eyed babies and unlimited love continued with her sister.

In all fairness to Jeff’s argument, however, I do sometimes have a favorite; it’s a fast moving target and it depends on the domain. My son’s sensitive, cerebral nature wows me; his ability to ignore my repeated requests to do just about anything frustrates me. My older daughter’s flair for design — her fashion sense trumped mine as soon as she entered preschool — and the kindness she shows others floor me; her quick temper dismays me. My younger daughter’s long, golden curls and the way she tells me she “loves me too much” make me melt; her nighttime wakings are beyond infuriating.

They’re all good — and bad — at different things, just as we all are. I see different parts of myself in each of them. I can choose a favorite in a particular category — I’d choose my son as my date to the Museum of Natural History, while my older daughter has been my Nutcracker  partner since she was 2 — but I can’t choose a favorite overall.

Or is that I won’t choose? What’s unique about the 35% of mothers and 30% of fathers who don’t seem to show a preference for one kid over the other? In April, I wrote about a Babble blogger who stirred the Internet pot by admitting she loves her baby boy way more than her 3-year-old daughter who, darn her, can be “very independent and challenging” and “wants things her way, all the time.”

My beef wasn’t with the sentiment; I realize some parents — most, according to Kluger — do have a favorite. But I couldn’t understand why Kate Tietje felt the need to share her feelings with the rest of the world in what essentially amounted to airing her dirty maternal-child laundry. It’s one thing to feel that way and process internally; it’s quite another to publicly expose your preschool daughter to the blogosphere’s pity.

But Tietje’s confession and Kluger’s recent story raised an important question for me: do I truly not have a most-beloved kid or am I just good at concealing it?

I’ll defer to my 6-year-old. I was curious why she’d reacted so strongly to the video. Did it make her feel bad about herself because she actually believed it to be true — kind of like a first-grader’s subconscious defense mechanism?

I pointed out that she has harshly accused me many times of not being fair. Perhaps her sister got a new book and she didn’t get anything, or her brother lucked out with six mini marshmallows in his hot chocolate compared to her four.

“Do you think I’m lying when I say I don’t have a favorite?” I asked her. It was a leading question, I know.

But she didn’t hesitate. “I know that you don’t have a favorite kid,” she said, staring me down, willing that it be so. “I just know that.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.