Have You Been Playing Favorites?

How dare they accuse you! But could your actions be sending unintended signals?

By Judy Harch

Years have passed. And yet, bitterness remains. Sure, Julia Burke was a child. But, her eyes were wide open every time her grandmother handed her $10, her sister $10, and her cousin $20 as a gift.

"She thought if her other granddaughter was an only child, she should get more," says Julia. With each incident, the girls' mother grew more incensed until finally confronting Grandma to request the girls get equal gift amounts — or nothing at all. Nowadays, Julia, herself a grandmother of five from Nevada, is guided by those memories. “I make sure money gifts to my grandchildren are always equal.”

How it Happens

Kids can see favoritism in "anything and everything, even complaining if a sibling is handed the first pickle from the jar," says Linda Sonna, Ph.D., author of The Everything Parent's Guide to Raising Siblings: Tips to Eliminate Rivalry, Avoid Favoritism, and Keep the Peace (Adams Media Corporation). Showing partiality — by touting one grandchild's accomplishments or consistently inviting the same grandchild to outings — whether intentional or not can sabotage a grandparent-grandchild bond.

And, to whom do grandchildren complain about getting short shrift? Parents — who may end up harboring feelings of anger. Left unaddressed, years of built-up resentment can expand into a chasm too wide to cross. If your grandchildren's parents approach you with concern, take it seriously, says Sonna. Parents who suspect blatant favoritism are not above minimizing contact with grandchildren to protect a child they believe is being hurt by unfair treatment.

Pointing Fingers

It's natural to feel closer to one grandchild than to another based on shared interests. "Some personalities just click more easily than others. That's as true of grandchildren as it is of acquaintances," says Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D., a grandmother of 12 who wrote The Grandmother Principles (Abbeville Press).

But, although you're under no obligation to feel an equal affection for each grandchild, she says, you are obligated to keep your preferences to yourself. Awareness is key to short-circuiting behavior that is perceived negatively as playing favorites. Take an honest account of the relationship you have with each grandchild. Ask adult children point-blank: "Am I playing favorites?" No matter how delicately you approach the subject, some slings and arrows may come your way. There's too much at stake, though, to worry about bruised egos.

Damage Control

A less-favored grandchild can experience emotional hurt. When a grandparent showers more attention on one grandchild's stellar report card or soccer trophy, this can crush the spirit of the grandchild who, no matter how hard he or she tries, can't boast similar triumphs, says Charles Sophy, a board-certified specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry and family practice. This, says Sophy, may lead children to ask parents or secretly wonder, "What's wrong with me?"

Kids Are People, Too

Sure, some favorites have it good...and they know it. "I was my grandfather's favorite," says Charlie Shaw, from Allentown, Pa. "Probably because I was the first-born. Whenever he went somewhere, I was the one he took along." But as Charlie awaits the birth of his second grandchild, he says he'll do all he can to avoid showing this type of preferential treatment.

Because, as Judy Hill, now a grandmother of four from New Jersey, knows, a golden grandchild can pay a high price. As her grandmother's obvious chosen one, she was picked on by jealous sisters. "It made me uncomfortable and I tried to discourage it," says Judy. "My younger sisters felt left out. They resented my getting special treatment and would gang up on me." When the sisters talk about it now, "my grandmother is not remembered in a good light," says Judy. That's not the legacy she plans to leave. Her childhood experience makes her highly aware of how she treats her grandchildren. Says Judy, "I really monitor myself."

Avoid Traps

Seemingly innocent actions may inadvertently lead grandchildren – or their parents – to suspect favoritism. Here are unintentional mishaps to look out for.

  • Established family patterns may favor the first-born or youngest grandchild, or a grandson over a granddaughter.
  • Cuddly infants often command more attention than older grandchildren. When fawning over an adorable grandbaby, let older siblings share the spotlight.
  • Adult children still competing for parents' affections can lash out if they see their children being ignored while a sibling's children are bragged about.
  • A difficult grandchild is easy to shy away from, but may need the most reassurance. Identify problems and encourage this grandchild to make behavioral changes.
  • Ask all grandchildren if they'd like to share an experience you wouldn't expect them to like. Break free of stereotypes and go fishing with a granddaughter or bake cookies with a grandson.
  • Kids count! Each grandchild should receive the same number of gifts. Let a grandchild's favorite colors, hobbies or toys guide gift selection.

Patch Up Wounds

If you've been accused of favoring one grandchild over another and open discussion with your family isn't an option, take it upon yourself to start anew. Carve out one-on-one time with each grandchild. And, when you're spending alone time with a grandchild, praise the one you're with! Make it your goal to have each grandchild feel the same amount of warmth from that shining light of your love.


Sometime it is more than just the relationship with the grandchildren. My daughter has always felt slighted and now I believe she wishes to project that on my relationship with my grandchildren. (I have done everything i can to help her) While I make efforts to treat each child similar, it is impossible to have the same relationship with each of them. They are unique individuals with different interests.
As I attempt to forge a bond with my third grandchild, I am met with resistance from the parents who do nothing to support the effort. She is 9 years of age and spends every weekend with her other grandmother. It has recently come to my attention that her parents do nothing to dispell her negative thoughts about me. And I assure you that I have never caused her any harm or distress. I believe she now speaks to them of what they encourage and want to hear... How she feels that I would abandon her for the other grandchildren or that I would not protect her in favor of the others, which could not be further from the reality.
So I am at a loss and feel that this situation is completely out of control. And it is causing distress to my other grandchild, her half sister.
My next step is to seek counseling with a profession but I would love to hear if anyone has similar issues.

dll5554@hotmail.com on 2013-07-01 09:57:39

I have a bit of a problem and Im hoping this is a good place to find answers. Im not a grandparent but I am a father of a 7 year old boy. Im having a problem with my mother favoring my sisters children over my son and I cannot broach the issue with my mother. My sister lived with my parents so her two boys were always in the house with my parents so in essence my mother sees them as her children too, while I lived further away and raised my son on my own.

now I have to be closer to them do to circumstances and Im really noticing how different the grandchildren are treated, my son is always the one to blame if one of the other children gets injred they come down hard on my son yet if my boy gets hurt by one of the others they still blame him it was your fault they hurt you. to top it off the other children straight face lie and even though they know it they still crack down on my son.

He is 7 and asks me why nana hates him, why she always takes his cousins side, to make things worse my mother tells him how she treats them all equal and its not true the only one who dosent see it is her. I fear irreparable damage to my boy over this and its made me look back to my youth and how it was the same for me and my sister though I was always trying to please my sister did little and got a lot.

My boy does chores and helps while the others get waited on hand and foot, for the time being I have no alternative but to have them close to my child when I can I will separate them again but Im worried about his self esteem etc being told he is treated equally but knowing its far from the truth

yes they have a bond with the other grandchildren but my boy should not suffer because he was not raised by them. I cannot talk to my mother abut this it will not be seen as anything other than an attack. She honestly does not see the difference or how much harder she is on us than the others Ive tried and tried to calm it to explain to my boy she does not hate him but its happening all the time and the other grandkids have clued in they can do no wrong they lie and my boy gets yelled at punished etc

I hope someone can help me offer some advice or a new way of explaining things to my child before its too late and he writes off his relationship with nana.

lakotta@hotmail.com on 2013-05-31 06:27:27

My child's grandmother was over the top when my daughter was born. It was as if she was the only child on the planet. When her second grandchild was born it was as if the women was determined to dislike her. In contrast to her son and my child, her daughter's child could do nothing right. The woman commented about her looking funny at birth and it was downhill from there. Because I think that her attitude could mess up the relationship among the cousins as they get older, her attitude is very painful to me. She is sort of like this with everyone and has alienated all but one person from every generation-from her own grandparents (I've heard from relatives) to her parent's relatives, to her siblings, her own children and now the grandchildren-she makes it clear she likes one person from each generation and then she confides in that one person about her various reasons for disliking the others. This one looks funny and that one once failed to send a thank you while another isn't smart enough. I hate seeing this acted out on my own child and my niece and would like to stop it before the children are old enough to understand.

Tigersandlions on 2013-01-27 23:56:46

Most of the technical problems that I spoke about in the post below are gone now (yay!). And there are new directions to the groups I mentioned. You can still click on Community, at the very top of the page, but then you'll see the whole list of forums b4 your eyes! Click on Grandparents Caring for Grandkids, if that's the one you want or Mothers-in-Law Anonymous, if that's what you're looking for. Also, if you're new here - or wish to help welcome those who are - please come talk to us in Club Newcomer!

One thing that hasn't changed, IMO - this is still a great article!

rosered135 on 2012-10-31 04:47:18