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When Grandma Has a Favorite

How to deal with grandparents who don’t play fair

Published on: September 05, 2019

Grandmother with granddaughter

Like most parents I know, I try hard to avoid treating any of my kids like the “favorite.” It’s not as easy as it sounds — it’s normal to feel a stronger connection to a child who mirrors your own interests and personality traits, say the bestselling authors of “Siblings Without Rivalry” — but it feels like the right thing to do. 

But what if grandparents don’t play by the same “no favorites” rules? In the decade-plus that I’ve been a parent, I’ve noticed a number of my parenting peers struggle with a different kind of favoritism: when their kids’ grandparents appear to have a favorite grandchild or favor the kids of one of their adult kids over another’s. 

When it happens in your own family, this behavior is surprising, confusing and hurtful. While you can control how you treat your own kids, you can’t necessarily get grandparents to quit favoring one child or set of kids. And often, the grandparent in question seems completely unaware of the problem. 

The whole thing seems like an unwanted trip back to your own childhood, dredging up old resentments and jealousies that you thought — hoped — that you’d outgrow.

But maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that today’s young parents seem to approach favoritism differently than previous generations of parents; after all, parenting has evolved, as have our ideals about equality and fairness. 

These days, parenting experts urge us to avoid favoritism and the relationship problems it can cause because of science. Research consistently shows that parental favoritism in childhood hurts sibling relationships long after kids leave the nest. In fact, it’s the top issue affecting sibling relationships in adulthood. 

But parents didn’t always have parenting experts or scientific studies to guide their behavior. And views on favoritism have changed. A few hundred years back, favoritism wasn’t frowned upon. In fact, favoritism was more or less the norm, particularly along gender lines. When you needed an heir to carry on the family name and society preferred that heir be male, it made economic sense to invest more parental time, resources and attention in certain children.

The whole thing has kind of tainted my brother and sister-in-law’s feelings about my daughter.

Today, though, most parents strive to treat kids equally regardless of gender, IQ or physical traits. But deeply entrenched behaviors have a way of overstaying their welcome.

Not to mention, it may be genuinely hard for a grandparent to treat all grandchildren equally, especially when geographic distance, health challenges and busy calendars come into play. Distance makes it harder for grandparents to develop close relationships with faraway grandkids, while those who live locally get extra attention. 

That’s the case for one South Sound mom of two. Her mother lives nearby and clearly favors her oldest daughter, 5. She showers her with attention, praise and gifts, even when visiting her other grandkids, who don’t live locally. The behavior ramps up during holidays and events when the entire family gathers; the favorite grandchild is applauded and adored, while the cousins, 6 and 8, look on.   

Talking to her mom about the golden child treatment didn’t make it stop, says the South Sound mom. Now it’s created strain in the family. “The whole thing has kind of tainted my brother and sister-in-law’s feelings about my daughter, even though they realize that’s unfair,” she says. "I can’t believe my mom doesn’t see it.”

Another local mom said her children, 11 and 7, are treated differently than their teenage cousin, who’s the clear grandparent favorite. In this case, it’s a case of parental favoritism that’s now stretching into a new generation — the mom of the favored grandchild was also the favored child growing up. 

“It’s crazy favoritism, and it’s weird to me because my parents didn’t play favorites at all,” she said. “I think it’s been this way their whole life.”

Although you can’t always change deep-seated behavior, you can help take the sting out of grandparent favoritism, whether your child is the apple of his grandparents’ eyes, or not.

  • When your child or children are the favorite: Talk to the grandparent or grandparents in question. Explain that while you appreciate the close relationship they’ve developed with your kids, you’re concerned that the unequal treatment might affect relationships between cousins.
  • Don’t feel guilty about the special treatment, since your behavior isn’t out of line. Foster strong relationships between cousins that don’t involve grandparent interactions. Cousin playdates and sleepovers are fun for those who live nearby; those who live faraway can be pen pals or keep up via Skype.
  • When your child or children are less favored: Don’t express your frustration over unequal treatment in front of your kids, who may be completely unaware of the discrepancy. 
  • Request that grandparents keep equality in mind. This particularly applies to doling out gifts, college fund contributions or other types of support.
  • Shift your own focus from the unequal treatment to helping your kids create fond memories with their grandparents, regardless of favoritism. In 20 years, your children won’t remember the outfits or outings their grandparents purchased for their cousins — they’ll remember the sound of Grandpa’s laugh, the feel of Grandma’s hugs and the time they shared together.  

This article was originally published in 2018, and updated in September 2019.

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