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Mommy Likes Me Best

Which one of your children do you love the most? I know what you're thinking. You don't ask parents that! We're not supposed to have favorites. We should love all of our children equally, right? You're correct. Congratulations, you passed the pen and paper test.

But do you really walk the walk? Children are keenly sensitive to their parents' actions and attitudes in developing their own sense of self. We must guard against anything that would result in our children developing feelings of being "less than" or "less loved" or "less worthy" than their siblings.

Yet, we unwittingly do just that in several ways that many of us are completely unaware of. It's always easier to see when other people are favoring a child, but it's much harder to notice it in our own families. Check the list below to make sure you're not accidentally leaving one child feeling as if he's playing second fiddle in your family.

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Here are six ways to avoid showing favoritism:

1. Never Compare

Sometimes parents hold another child up as an example, hoping the old "shame as punishment" method will somehow be motivating. Well, it isn't.

"Sean's room is nice and neat. Why can't you keep your room tidy like your brother?"

"Sean's eaten everything on his plate, what's your problem?"

"Sean's already done his homework. If you'd have sat still and concentrated like him, you'd be done by now, too."

OK—don't you just hate Sean already? These types of comparisons dissuade a sibling from even trying because he feels he could never keep up with "golden child" Sean. So why even try? In fact, if he tries and comes up short, that will only serve to confirm his feared notion that he holds a second-class status in the family.

2. Never Pit Them in Competition

We've all done it: "First one to the car wins!" or "First one to pick up their toys gets to pick the bedtime stories." You might temporarily speed up your children, but you've stoked the competition between your children for your approval by subtly conveying the message that if you win the competition, you move up in your parents' esteem. We act as if it's just a game, but children confuse winning competitions with winning parental love and approval.

3. Never Agree to Act as Judge

Even if you don't initiate the competition, children will do so themselves and try to pull you in as the judge:

"Mom, which one of us held our breath under water the longest?"

"Dad, whose swing went higher?"

"Which somersault was better?"

I'm telling you—don't go there. Sure, it sounds as if you could be an objective outside observer, but it will bite you back. Someone will think your judgment is biased and that you took sides. Instead, say, "Does it really matter who's better? Why not encourage each other to improve on your personal bests?"

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4. Never Expect Kids to Set an Example

"Don't swear in front of your brother. Do you want him to learn that?" or "Use your manners, and set an example for your brother." Asking an older child to subvert himself or adapt his behavior for the betterment of a younger sibling can leave the older child feeling resentful, complaining, "You care more about him than me." It's better to say, "Swearing is rude—let's clean it up, please," or "Please use your manners. It makes for better company at the table."

5. Never Accommodate to the Lowest Common Denominator

"We can't watch that DVD. It's not appropriate for your little brothers."

"Be quiet—your sister is napping."

"We have to leave the park now. Your sister needs her diaper changed."

While I don't expect you to suddenly put on a slasher movie at bedtime, I do recommend that you listen empathetically and show genuine concern: "I know it can be tough having a baby sister that limits some of what we can do. Is there another time we can cuddle up and enjoy your movie? I really like watching shows with you, too." It's not favoritism but a logistical problem to solve together.

6. Never Take Sides in a Fight

Perhaps the biggest contributor to having one sibling feel that her mom or dad prefers the other sibling occurs when parents get involved in their squabbles. Parents see a conflict and feel it's their parental duty to step in. Unfortunately, parents usually see one child as being in the wrong, and so one gets punished and the other is felt sorry for. But it takes two to make a fight. It's just cooperation that is misdirected.

If you want to avoid showing favoritism, I suggest you adopt the rule "Two do the crime—two do the time," meaning both children experience the same consequence for fighting. If they can't share the computer without fighting over it, they both lose their computer time. If they fight physically, they both go to their rooms for a time-out until they get along together—regardless of who is the hitter and who is being hit.

Try these out and see if things don't become more harmonious in your home.

Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canada's leading parenting experts. She is the author of three parenting books: Breaking the Good Mom Myth, Honey, I Wrecked the Kids and her latest, Ain't MIsbehavin'.

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