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Family Life | The Unfairness of Family Favoritism

How do you make each child in the family feel uniquely loved and special without prefering one over the other? How can one overcome a parent’s affinity and affection for one child over another child? This is one of the many balancing acts in parenting, the difficulty of which is compounded with each additional child or children with special needs. Today’s story speaks of the importance of not playing favorites.

In last week’s article, Isaac and Rebekah’s love story and marriage started out well. But they had to wait 20 years before they were finally granted fraternal twins, Esau (“hairy”) and Jacob (“one who grasps the heel”, meaning deceptive behavior). As both grew, their differences became more apparent. Esau was a skillful hunter who roamed the open country, while smooth-skinned Jacob was a quiet man and a homebody. The critical point of the story is in Gen. 25:28: “Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” There are important lessons we can gather from their story (Gen. 25:19-34; 27-28:9).

Parental favoritism of children creates division in the home. Isaac liked to eat the tasty hunted meat of Esau, while Rebekah liked having a reliable son helping with domestic duties. Rebekah devised a scheme so Jacob gets Isaac’s blessing meant for Esau.

Parental favoritism creates family dysfunction, as character flaws of the favored child get overlooked and not dealt with, affecting everyone. Jacob lived up to his name. He stole Esau’s birthright as the eldest with a bowl of stew, and then connived with Rebekah to steal Esau’s blessings. He lied and deceived his father. Rebekah also made excuses for Jacob so he could escape upon hearing Esau’s vow of revenge on Jacob for what he did. Isaac did not coach Esau, who did not have regard for birthrights or spiritual things, and who chose to marry four Canaanite women who brought grief to them. The parents’ weaknesses became breeding grounds for the children’s character flaws to remain unchecked.

Parental favoritism brings destruction of family relationships. Esau held a grudge against Jacob and planned to kill him for stealing his blessing. Rebekah had to send Jacob away and never saw him again, as she was even outlived by Isaac. Esau married Canaanite women, seeing it was offensive to his parents. What a mess! After many years, Esau and Jacob met and reconciled, having both been blessed with families and wealth, but they lived apart from each other. Their descendants, the Edomites and Israelites, had a long history of conflict.

Parental favoritism tends to be carried over to the next generation. Jacob, renamed Israel, did not learn his lesson and also played favorites with his own children. He loved Joseph over his other sons and gave him a multi-colored coat. As a result, the siblings hated Joseph and could not say any kind word to him. They even planned to kill him but instead sold him off to some traders (Gen. 37).

Parental favoritism, or parental differential treatment in research, does not bring anything good, as studies show. A study of 151 pairs of young adult siblings showed that those who were not favored reported more depressive symptoms and lesser sibling intimacy (Jensen, et. al., 2013). Other studies showed it resulted in siblings feeling less warmth and more hostile toward one another (Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1994; Volling, 1997; Brody, et. al., 1998), inadequate emotional adjustment (Volling and Elins, 1998), lower academic achievement (Barree, Singer, & Weinstein, 2000), and lower self esteem (Zervas & Sherman, 1994).

Favoritism, discrimination, and partiality, are all reprimanded and commanded against in the Scriptures (Lev. 19:15; Ex. 23:3; Rom. 2:11; James 2:1, 8-9). Sad to say, it is a common practice among parents. A few ideas on how parents can counteract favoritism?

See each child through the lens of their Creator – their uniqueness of traits, appearance, personality, and purpose. Treating children fairly does not mean treating them the same. What works for one may not work for the others. One should study each child to see and know what will work for each child.

Connect, listen and give undivided attention to each child on a regular basis to make them feel listened to, understood, and affirmed.

Know and speak each child’s love language (words of affirmation, gifts, service, physical touch, quality time). Speak all with each one and see which makes them excited or puts sparkle in their eyes. Do those more often so each child feels and knows they are loved.

Examine yourself. Which one makes you lose your cool, you are more affectionate with, you ignore or overlook often, criticize or correct often, give more favors to? Do not wait until it is too late to correct, ask forgiveness, and forego favoritism in the family!

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