Monday, January 30, 2012

Playing Favorites

Do you remember the Teacher’s Pet? The one who could do not wrong, even when she did wrong? The one who sat front and center, sometimes turning around to gloat? The one who found plus signs behind the letter, A, no matter how much or how little time she devoted to the task? Are you thinking about her? How much did you like her? How did she turn out?

Something similar happens in many homes across America. Parents choose a favorite and according to experts, no one is the same thereafter. The ill-favored child often suffers from low self-esteem, the favored child often has an inflated sense of her worth. According to Dr. Phil, the effects of playing favorites are toxic:

When parents focus more love and attention on one child, all the children begin to feel that their parents' behavior is unfair and unpredictable, which creates resentment and uncertainty. It also affects sibling relationships, leading to higher levels of anger and aggressiveness. The less-favored child carries around feelings of not being good enough, wondering, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ This leads to low self-esteem, anger and acting out for attention, even negative attention. The favored child will begin to feel his/her sibling's resentment, and may even begin to hate being treated as the special child. (

As a teacher of thirty-seven years, I too faced the parental dilemma because some kids need something more and others seem to deserve something more of us. I remember three students in an early-morning class. One, whom I will call Jane, was never late, rarely absent, and always prepared. She smiled every day, and she befriended every other student. She even offered to drive out of her way to pick up another student whom I will call Jack. He had no car in spite of the fact that he was the sole support in his household and worked more than a 40-hour week.

Jack’s mother was often let go or quit her job, especially after she learned that her teenaged son could hold one. Rent, health care for his mother and siblings, and food for the table left no money for a car so Jack walked everywhere: 2 miles back and forth to work, 4.2 miles to and from school through any and all weather, wearing only a jacket, the only coat he owned.

Perhaps my star student Jane empathized with Jack because she lived with people to whom she was not related. Her own family, plagued with addictions, drove her into the arms of some good people. She too worked full-time to pay her way, but she did not have to provide for an entire household. She could afford car payments and fuel so she extended the kindness of strangers to embrace Jack, her opposite in disposition. While Jane was sunny, Jack was dour, a misanthrope at the tender age of seventeen.

The third student, whom I’ve named Jill, was even more misanthropic. She fancied herself as some sort of creature of the night. She even had fangs permanently installed on her canine teeth. She wore black, lacked a moral center, and danced with failure almost every day. Toward the end of the school year, she spent an entire paycheck on knives--sharp, deadly knives purchased at a gun show. Her dad with whom she lived took her to the show for her eighteenth birthday. I worried that she would harm herself with them because the Lycan she loved deserted her.

I adored Jane. I admired Jack, and I was afraid for Jill.

Jane was my favorite, but neither Jack nor Jill thought so. Jack knew that I would fight for him as a Mama Grizzly fights for her cubs. I nominated him for a scholarship that came with a car and helped him through the application process. I wrote heartfelt praise for his mind and work habits. (He finished in the top 5 but did not win.)

For Jill, I offered second and third chances. I listened to her wacky, weird worldview, and I looked at all the photos of those knives. I had conversations with her mother and the principal. We threw our life lines to her in particular in the belief that kids at risk need plenty of hands to hold in dark, dangerous times.

For Jane, I offered resources according to her needs, but her needs were few. She had life well in hand and is about to graduate from college. Both Jill and Jack started college. Their progress is slower.

I hope, to some very small degree, the fact that I did not make Jack or Jill feel small when standing next to Jane helped. So parents, be wise. Search for the miracle within each child, then let that miracle live in the sun.