Grandparent Favoritism: When to Deal and When to Bail
Family favoritism is the affliction that keeps on giving. From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams, authors have relied on favoritism to thicken plotlines and quicken pulses for good reasons. Its familiar nature all but guarantees audience identification. Even more deliciously, it provides the motivation for some seriously egregious behaviors.
Real-life favoritism, however, has far less delicious appeal than the fictionalized variety—especially when the preferential treatment comes from grandparents. Yes, grandparents, those iconic beings charged with sprinkling unconditional love and inter-generational wisdom like fairy dust. Yet many remain mired in the muck of conflict and preferential treatment.
Emmy Moretti is all too familiar with grandparent favoritism. The 37-year-old IT specialist and busy mother of two dreaded holiday dinners at her grandparents’ rambling house near Montreal. As one of eleven grandchildren from a boisterous Italian Canadian family, Emmy was aware of her least-favored status from an early age, as well as her cousin’s status as the golden girl.
“I thought we’d all grow up and grow out of it,” Emmy says over a cup of steaming coffee at a downtown Montreal café. “That never really happened. Now it’s become a generational thing— my youngest daughter and my cousin’s kid.”
The cousin in question is Emmy’s nemesis and her grandparents’ favorite. “Doesn’t matter what I’ve done with my life,” she says, frustration showing on her face, “when my family gets together, I’m six years old again. I don’t want my kids to go through that.”
Emmy’s fears are not the paranoid ramblings of an unhinged mind. Research suggests that favoritism is often passed down from one generation to the next, cultivated by the privileged like a prized garden. Neither is Emmy’s story unique. Grandparent favoritism—which frequently takes the form of extra gifts and attention—is an unfortunate fact for many families.
Acknowledging favoritism’s pervasive nature is the easy part. Figuring out what to do about it is another matter that often reopens old childhood wounds. There’s some good news, though. Not all grandparent favoritism is harmful and when it is, there are plenty of coping strategies.
Before plotting out a strategy in anticipation of the next family gatherings, though, you might want to spend a little time separating out the truly harmful from the merely annoying variations of favoritism. Only the former requires a coping strategy. For the latter, which just about everyone experiences, it’s probably best to just plaster on a smile and persevere.
Key Characteristics of Favoritism
Cultural Norms vs Reality
Cultural norms depict grandparents as wise elders, presiding over family gatherings with an even hand and a serene smile. But achieving cultural ideals is often impossible given the herculean task of doling out fair treatment across multiple grandchildren and a vast array of circumstances.
It’s no wonder even the most well-intentioned grandparents fail. Add to that the fact that not all grandparents are well-intentioned, and the potential for family conflict is boundless.
Even parents, with their greater stake in creating conflict-free families, show significant levels of favoritism. Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us, argues that favoritism is hardwired into our brains. "It is my belief that 95 per cent of the parents in the world have a favorite child, and the other five per cent are lying,” he writes.
Lest you think Kluger is engaging in hyperbole to promote book sales, there is plenty of evidence to support his claims. In one study, Karl Pillemer and his colleagues at Cornell University interviewed 275 Boston-area mothers in their 60s and 70s. Seventy percent reported having a favorite child, even after their children reached adulthood. Instead of taking on the role of wise elder, many aging parents are still trapped in conflicts that dogged their families for decades.
Not surprisingly, grandparents are part of this ongoing cycle of preferential treatment. The effects of childhood favoritism can last decades and span generations. Adults who believe they were unfavored have more distant relationships with their parents, which weakens the bonds between grandparents and grandkids.
Conversely, when grandparents and their adult children are close, it encourages grandchildren to establish close ties with grandparents.
Social support strengthens relationships to an even greater extent. Children have more opportunities to develop warm relationships with grandparents when their parents and grandparents help one another.
Favoritism is Obvious
Another key feature of favoritism is that it’s obvious to everyone, especially kids. Most children are heat-seeking missiles when it comes to accurately pinpointing favoritism.
Other family members are no slouches, either. According to Dr. Ellen Libby, author of The Favorite Child, in dysfunctional families, favoritism is frequently the only thing members agree upon. She observed a high degree of consensus regarding who was favored even when families agreed on little else.
Favoritism Takes Different Forms
Favoritism may be common and obvious, but it’s also a slippery shape shifter. Filtered through the brains of individuals as unique as Tennessee Williams’ character, Big Daddy, and Shakespeare’s King Lear, favoritism is expressed in infinite ways. Yet, there are broad similarities that help to differentiate the annoying from the harmful varieties. Libby provides a useful distinction by identifying fluid and fixed forms of favoritism.
Fluid Favoritism: Should Grandparents Treat All Grandkids the Same?
Fluid favoritism shifts from one family member to another, so in theory, everyone has their time in the spotlight. One grandparent may prefer babies while another enjoys the company of teens. Grandparents may provide extra attention to a child who is bullied or going through a family crisis, but the favoritism does not last once the problems are resolved.
Since favoritism is fluid, it does not devalue children as individuals. At some point, every child will be a baby and a teen, so each will have an opportunity to shine.
Fixed Favoritism: Where the Harm Lies
Fixed favoritism does not shift from one grandchild to the next. Instead, it consistently elevates some over others. When a grandparent singles out a particular child for special treatment, the family dynamic can quickly shift into unhealthy territory.
Although fixed favoritism often appears random, it’s more likely that its genesis is difficult to identify. In some cases, though, favoritism follows a path with well-worn ruts. The matrilineal advantage, where mothers favor daughters and their daughters’ offspring, is one example of a pattern that occurs repeatedly.
Daughters also have closer ties to their own parents than to their in-laws, and maternal grandparents often form more meaningful bonds with their grandchildren. The close bonds found between maternal grandmothers and grandchildren persist even after grandchildren set up independent households.
The matrilineal advantage is not necessarily harmful; in fact, it’s often well accepted as just a fact of life. But given the range of individual differences in families, any pattern that systematically values some children over others has the power to inflict harm. Forewarned is forearmed.
Favoritism according to birth order also follows a distinct pattern that singles out categories of children for favored treatment. The fate of middle-born children is not just a mom-loved-you-best trope. Studies consistently find that middle-born children are less favored than their older and younger siblings, and first-born and last-born children are more likely to be favored by their mothers. Birth order helps explain favoritism even after the children enter adulthood.
Yikes! Middleborns feel free to vent. It’s unfair. It’s categorically unfair.
When to Worry About Toxic Grandparents
Grandparents play a powerful role in families, hosting gatherings, disseminating family information, and often setting the tone for how family members are treated. When favoritism is involved, it sets a benchmark for how people are valued and treated within the family.
Children are especially vulnerable. Making sense of complicated family situations is often outside the scope of their understanding. Emmy knows that well. “What I really didn’t get as a kid,” she says, “is that the situation was the result of my grandparents’ inadequacies, not mine. It took me a long time to figure that out.” It also caused Emmy a lot of unnecessary pain and self-doubt.
Depression Plagues Both Favored and Unfavored Grandchildren
According to Karl Pillemer, “It doesn’t matter if you are favored or not. Unequal treatment has damaging effects for all children” including depression and conflict-ridden relationships in adulthood.
Libby attributes these negative consequences to the tensions associated with being chosen as well as not being chosen. The unfavored child longs for favored status; the golden child feels pressure to maintain that status, or sometimes even guilt over their elevated position in relation to their peers.
Pillemer notes that “Whether mom’s golden child or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child are more likely to show depressive symptoms as middle-aged adults.” The same can be said for grandparent favoritism. Although exposure is more limited, consistent grandparent favoritism is still harmful.
Favoritism Creates Inter-Family Conflicts
Favoritism’s symbiotic twin is resentment. Resentment tugs at the ties that bind families, weakening relationships among siblings, cousins, and in-laws. Unsurprisingly, relationships among siblings, in particular, are most positive when treatment of adult children is equal.
Children have a great deal to lose when families are divided. Extended families provide huge benefits to children who grow up surrounded by loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In addition to forming the foundation for lasting memories, extended families provide stability in times of crisis and during a divorce. Favoritism creates conflicts that deprive children of these benefits.
Grandparent Favoritism has a Greater Effect when Love and Support are Scarce
For dysfunctional families, the effects of differential treatment on children are much stronger. Alex Jensen analyzed 282 families with teenage siblings for a study that appears in the Journal of Family Psychology. For families that do not share close relationships, favoritism is associated with stronger negative effects. To make matters worse, favoritism is also more common when parents have higher levels of stress associated with marital or health problems.
Favored Children Feel Entitled
According to Libby in The Favorite Child, favored children grow up knowing how to get what they want from important adults around them. They master the art of manipulation and are frequently not held accountable for their behavior. Favored children are prone to feelings of entitlement that last well beyond childhood and often mar their adult relationships.
The Unfavored Child Suffers Along Multiple Dimensions
Least-favored children experience lower levels of self-esteem, self-worth, and sense of social responsibility. They’re also subject to higher levels of aggression, depression, and externalizing behaviors. Libby argues that least-favored children spent their lives looking for validation. They grow up insecure, struggle to establish intimacy, and are easily angered and frustrated.
If that does not sound like the kind of legacy you were hoping to leave your offspring, it’s time to consider ramping up the resources for dealing with favoritism.
Strategies for Handling Favoritism
Monitor Favoritism to Ensure its Fluid, Not Fixed
Most families will need to resign themselves to tolerating some degree of favoritism, given its ubiquitous nature.
When deciding how much is too much, it’s useful to recall Libby’s distinction between the fixed and fluid types. If favoritism is benign and fluid, your child may not perceive favoritism at all. Even if they do, no action might be needed beyond a brief chat. If favoritism is systematic and fixed, though, it’s definitely time to take some measures to limit the damage.
Call a Group Meeting
Open communication among all family members can be one of the best means to combat the harm. The first step is to call a family meeting on neutral territory, if possible. You might be surprised to find that the parents of that glittering golden child are uncomfortable with the situation. And grandparents might be completely unaware of their blatantly preferential behavior and apologetically promise to make immediate amends.
When I suggest the possibility of golden-child guilt and grandparent rehabilitation to Emmy, she scoffs. “Yeah, and pigs might fly.” As she tells it, she tried a similar approach a few years earlier, after noticing a clearly unequal distribution of grandparent gifts. “The following year it was worse. It’s like they found out what bothered me, and then went for the kill. To top it off, they blamed me for acting like a spoiled brat for bringing it up.”
Yup, open communication can also be uber-polarizing and go horribly wrong. Even Libby acknowledges that open communication is hard to achieve since everyone must value the process. It’s up to you to assess the situation and decide if it feels right.
Privately Make Grandparents Aware of Favoritism
If group meetings are not your thing, communication is still possible on a smaller scale. Privately letting grandparents know that their behavior appears preferential diminishes the risk of backlash from other family members. It also allows grandparents to process the information outside the glare of public scrutiny.
Let your parents or in-laws know that it’s not okay to compare children in a way that undermines their self-worth. Libby notes that when everyone denies the existence of favoritism, less attention is paid to the way children experience favoritism, which is more likely to cause harm. Airing your concerns removes denial from the equation—or at least your side of the equation.
Spend Less Time with Toxic Grandparents
If the thought of yet another family gathering has you breathing into a paper bag, remind yourself that grandparent favoritism is avoidable. No law mandates grandparent visits. However, if you decide that maintaining a relationship with grandparents is good for your children in the long run, then tease out the source of the problem and avoid that instead.
Perhaps differential treatment is triggered only when your brother’s six-year-old son Charlie is present. As the favorite, the grandparents compare Charlie to his cousins and fawn over his ability to shoot a puck while reciting the list of prime numbers backwards in his head.
Headache-inducing stuff, for sure, but you can always visit grandma and grandpa without your brother’s family present. Problem solved, at least partially. You might still hear about Charlie’s exploits, but changing the subject is easier when it’s just you and the grandparents. More importantly, Charlie won’t be there to serve as a catalyst.
Ratchet-up the Unconditional Love
Libby notes that it’s critical that all children feel loved and appreciated for what makes them special. Jensen would agree: “Show your love to your kids at a greater extent than you currently are. As simple as it sounds, more warmth and less conflict is probably the best answer.” If kids aren’t getting unconditional love at home, they’re probably not getting it anywhere.
Jensen also recommends paying attention to the unique characteristics that each child is attempting to build into their identity and avoiding comparisons. That’s especially important for the most under-valued subcategories of people on the planet—middle-born children. Find out what makes your middle-born kids special and focus on it with laser-like intensity.
When to Accept Favoritism
At some point, it might be time to graciously decide to live with some degree of unfairness—the harmless variety. Your parents are just people, after all, with their own faults, prejudices, and abilities to be fair minded. We can’t substitute a new set of parents for a subpar set, or even change their behavior substantially.
If you do commit to an imperfect family dynamic, messy as it is, don’t think too hard or look too closely at every situation. Show up. Deal with it. Forget it. Ruminating is best left to cows and philosophers. And while you’re at it, it’s probably best to forget that extra glass of memory-dulling wine. Every extra drop means fewer inhibitions, and that is the last thing you need.
When to Pull the Plug on Visiting Toxic Grandparents
Over a year ago, Emmy finally decided to break the cycle of discontent after a particularly grueling Christmas day dinner. “I put up with it for years, hoping things would get better. In the lead up, there’s always the faint hope things will be different. Reality sets in afterwards. Nothing changes. Nothing will. I don’t want my kids to dread holidays or spend days contemplating what they did wrong after the fact.”
The situation is complicated because Emmy’s mother won’t sever ties with her extended family. Emmy understands and is willing to adapt. For her, the evolving holiday paradigm is to skip dinner with the grandparents, which her own parents attend.
She schedules her own celebration on a different day, inviting her parents, siblings, and close friends—with as many kids as she can cram into her condo. “It was a relief when I finally decided it wasn’t worth the headache. We’re starting new traditions, building new relationships, keeping it real—it just feels right.”
Create a Legacy of Fairness
By breaking away, Emmy is also creating her own legacy of fairness passed down from her own mother. “My Mom provided the model. She was fair with my brothers and me, and now with our kids. Every birthday is honored in the same way—as much as humanly possible. If there’s an exception, everyone understands why. The cousins all love each other and can’t wait to get together. I’m hoping my kids continue these traditions with their own families.”
While she approves of her mother’s behavior, Emmy admits there’s probably some favoritism involved. “Mom has six grandkids and probably has a favorite or two,” she says. “If I spent a couple of minutes thinking about it, I could probably come up with names. The point is, I spend no time thinking about it because it doesn’t matter. She treats everyone fairly.”
Leaving a legacy fairness has clear benefits. A warm, loving extended family buffers children from life’s vicissitudes—buffers everyone, really. Multi-generational get togethers can be a rich source of family folklore where families share stories, special foods, and the unique traditions. It’s a goal worth attaining.
Photo credits: rawpixels.com
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