Do you have a favorite grandchild? Chances are you do, but let’s hope you don’t let it show when you’re with your grandchildren. Children are observant — they pick up cues from our bodies and faces even when we may be saying something different. We think we’re concealing our feelings but unconsciously, we may be sending a message: I love you more or I love you less.
I’ve been very conscious of not showing favoritism with my two oldest granddaughters who are sisters. Despite their four-year age difference, they do many activities together — piano, horseback riding, singing, and art — so it’s hard not to compare. In fact, sometimes my 11-year old granddaughter has asked me, “Who did it better?”
What I’ve learned is to look for their unique talents and hone in on those when giving feedback.
Susan Adcox, who writes about grandparenting issues on LiveAbout, shared some wisdom on how to avoid playing favorites with your grandchildren.
Favoritism is a dirty word in most families. Both parents and grandparents want to believe that they are not guilty of playing favorites. Many psychologists say that there are favorites in every family. The key to sound parenting and grandparenting is to realize that one may have favorites, but it’s not okay to play favorites. In other words, grandparents must strive to provide appropriate love and support for all their grandchildren, regardless of the level of affection they feel.
Special Challenges for Grandparents
Avoiding favoritism can be even more difficult for grandparents than for parents. It’s easier to treat children and grandchildren equally if you can treat them the same. Because you’re likely to have more diversity in grandchildren than in children, treating them the same becomes impossible, and treating them equally becomes difficult.
Here are some of the ways in which grandchildren may be different from each other:
- They vary in age.
- They’re different genders.
- They have different economic situations.
- They live in different families, and grandparents may have closer relationships with some of their adult children than others.
- Some grandchildren are the offspring of divorced parents. Divorce can weaken family ties when it makes contacting the grandchildren difficult. It can strengthen the grandparent-grandchild relationship in situations where the grandparent becomes kind of a surrogate parent.
- They live in different places, and relationships with the distant grandchildren may be quite different from those who live nearby.
- Some grandchildren are step-grandchildren acquired through a blended family.
Added to these differences in grandchildren’s circumstances, grandchildren will also exhibit individual differences that will affect how grandparents relate to them.
- Children who have behavior problems may be harder to love.
- Children who have health issues may receive extra attention.
- Children may have personality clashes with grandparents.
Fluid Favoritism Versus Fixed Favoritism
Dr. Ellen Libby, the author of The Favorite Child: How a Favorite Impacts Every Family Member for Life, says that favoritism has a lifelong impact, but there are ways to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives. One way is by practicing fluid favoritism rather than fixed favoritism. In fluid favoritism, a child may be favored because of his stage of life, or because his interests coincide with the parents’ or grandparents’ interests. Each child gets his or her “time in the sun.”
Most parents and grandparents favor one particular stage of childhood. Some love infants and toddlers. Others don’t really bond with children until they become more like adults. These preferences may drive fluid favoritism.
Fluid favoritism can also occur in response to changes in family circumstances. If a grandchild is sharing your home, you are going to spend more time with that grandchild. If one of your adult children is in financial difficulty, you are probably going to spend more money on the grandchildren in that family.
The key is to make sure that the favoritism doesn’t outlast the specific situations that engendered it.
Awareness of Playing Favorites
Dr. Libby suggests that parents and grandparents need to have conversations with their children and grandchildren about favoritism. Ask questions such as the following:
- Do you know that I love you?
- Do you think I like some of my grandchildren more than others?
- What makes you think so?
- What do I do that makes you believe this?
- How does that make you feel?
- Have you ever been my favorite?
- Do you believe that you will be my favorite again?
Older grandchildren may be able to handle some more complex questions:
- Do you love all of your grandparents equally?
- Do you understand why it is difficult to treat all grandchildren equally?
Avoiding Playing Favorites
Besides having discussions within the family about favoritism, grandparents should also closely monitor their behavior. There are three primary ways in which grandparents sometimes play favorites, and all of these can play havoc with family dynamics:
- They choose to spend more time with certain grandchildren, and not for reasons of geographical closeness or other considerations that are out of their control.
- They spend more readily on some grandchildren, and not for reasons of real financial need.
- They may be more critical of non-favored grandchildren and more effusive in praising their favorites. Observers may note that a grandparent seems blind to the positive qualities of a less-favored grandchild, or that the grandparent can see only positives in a favored grandchild.
- They involve spending money and time, the holidays are ripe for demonstrations of favoritism.
Favoritism is a part of family life, but its impact can be lessened if you:
- Become aware of your own biases.
- Discuss the topic of favoritism openly with family members.
- Be as equitable as possible in spending money and time with grandchildren.
- Avoid criticism.
- Lavish praise, hugs and other signs of affection on all of your grandchildren.