Among the gazillions of things about being a parent which inspire guilt, having a favourite child is right at the top of the list. I can talk about most parenting issues with my friends without blanching. I can confess to losing my temper, being too pushy and not noticing what's going on in a child's life until there's a crisis at school. But discussing having a favourite is one of the great no-nos.
This week, however, I have dared to defy that taboo, emboldened by an online survey on favouritism to which a thousand mothers responded. Two thirds of them admitted to treating their children differently from one another, and a brave 16 per cent admitted to actually having a favourite. Despite their anonymity, I suspect that many of those who said they didn't have a favourite weren't being totally honest with themselves. The true prevalence of favouritism is, I suspect, more in line with the finding of 80 per cent which resulted from a survey conducted last year by the University of Toronto.
At least, that's what I conclude from my unscientific survey of friends. Among the answers that I received to the question "Who's your favourite child?" some were facetious. "The one who is asleep," said the mother of three small children. "The one who's not about to go to prison," said the father of two teenage boys. Those who thought harder would usually say, initially, that they loved all their children equally but did find one more likeable. Which one that was, they said, varied over the years, months and even hours, according to how they were behaving. As they talked, however, it became obvious that one child held that position more often than others.
There were a variety of explanations for why, as I observed, a parent's face would light up when one child came into the room while, when another one entered, you could see the parents physically tensing, as if thinking: "What now?" Some seem to have a softest spot for the eldest child because they had more one-to-one time with that child when he or she was their only child. Others find themselves least at ease with the eldest because the child's arrival had been traumatic (as first birth's often are), which had made it hard to bond. Youngest ones are often favourites because they keep their parents company while elder children are asserting their independence.
"I find it easiest to be with the child who shares my interests," said one father who, understandably, spends more time in the park playing ballgames with his son than he does loafing around shopping malls with his daughters. Later on, he may find that changes when the flirtation factor comes into play. It is natural for a father to dote upon a pretty daughter who makes him feel like a king, rather than an argumentative boy who has rather ruder names for him.
Personality, too, had a major bearing. Some children aren't as tactile as others, or as communicative. Naturally, it's easier to get close a child who cuddles and confides. I myself find a shared sense of humour very endearing, especially when there are teenagers in the house whose ability to laugh at themselves has been (only temporarily, I hope) eradicated. Vulnerability is also a crucial factor. When a child has been sick or has required constant attention, the protective instinct can go into overdrive. We all want to be needed. But there is an equally powerful and natural tendency to favour the successful child, the one who is good at academic work or sport, who reflects glory on the family and fills the mantlepiece with trophies.
The only parents who could truly tell me, hand-on-heart, that they didn't have a favourite were those with an only child. Then the tables are turned and it is the parents' turn to worry about which of them the child loves best. But even those who confessed to having a favourite try to spare their children the knowledge of who that is. I have only one friend who makes a point of constantly mentioning, in front of her other children, that the youngest child - and only girl - is the father's favourite. It's a bizarre way to behave, which invariably sends a frisson around the room as everyone present either looks at their feet or glances at the various children to judge their reactions. Unsurprisingly, the boys look resentful, while the little girl preens herself.
I don't know why she does it. "Because it's true," she says. Maybe, but her explanation that such brutal honesty will spur the boys on to be more delightful doesn't wash. She must have noticed that it is having the opposite effect, and is making the boys hate their sister to boot. Long-term, psychologists say, it will worry the little girl, too, as she will feel guilty about receiving such special treatment. Probably, the reason this woman acts in this divisive way can be found in her own childhood. As a youngest child and only girl herself, she may be combating her own insecurities about her relationship with her parents or reliving the glory days when she was without question the youngest, sweetest person in the room.
Such blatant favouritism is much rarer these days than it was in my mother's generation, when having a boy was considered far more praiseworthy than having had what was described as "only a girl". Had my sisters and I had a brother, I feel sure he would have received more attention, money and a better education, but we could have blamed society for that, as well as our parents. The brother never arrived, but that didn't prevent the three of us wondering which of us was the favourite, just as my children do.
My parents were clever about it. They never, ever discussed one of us with the others or made comparisons. The only hint of explicit favouritism occurred in the last years of my father's life when he was confused after a stroke. As I arrived to visit, my mother said that "one of the girls" was here. "Is it the one I admire?" he asked. She didn't reply, of course, but it put the lie to their strenuous refusal to admit to favourites. I will never know whether he meant me. As I came into the room he never said, "Yes it is you". Nor did his face fall. I have my hopes, but I also know that both my sisters are equally convinced that they were his favourite.
You can't stop children speculating, but you can keep them guessing. That's the policy I am trying to employ with my own children. Often it's easier to spot the one who is feeling less favoured than the smug one who believes her or she is basking in parental approval. One of my daughters recently said she felt she was blamed for everything and I only ever opened my mouth to criticise her. Since then, I've been trying to spot things to praise; she seems to be cheering up.
None of my children have yet asked the dreaded question: "Am I your favourite?" If they do, I might follow the example of a friend who says that when she was asked the question she whispered "You are" and swore the child to secrecy. Then when the next one came along, she did exactly the same. And the next. So far they haven't swapped notes.