Favoritism exists throughout the animal kingdom. Most species nurture the strongest of their offspring, which have the most promise of propagating their genetics into the future. The wussy and wimpy ones, on the other hand, usually get eaten. So when it comes to humans, it makes sense biologically that parents play favorites amongst their children.
Parents are drawn to kids who are more pleasant and affectionate, and less aggressive and deviant. For example, let's say you have twin babies. One screams 24/7 and the other coos sweetly in your arms. Well guess what? The screaming one is toast.
Parents also tend to feel closer to children of the same gender and personality type, and favor their biological kids over stepchildren. In addition, parents usually have a soft spot for their first- and lastborn (at some point, the first- and lastborn have their parents all to themselves). Generally speaking, it's the firstborns who get all the perks due to the emotional and physical investment that goes into having the first baby.
Favoritism manifests itself in how much time, affection, privilege, or discipline you give one child compared to another. The problem is that kids who are blatantly disfavored by their parents experience terrible outcomes across the board: more depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem, and poorer academic performance. On the opposite side of the coin, children who are favored tend to develop a sense of arrogance and entitlement, which makes them terribly disliked by their siblings and totally unprepared for the real world.
So, how can a parent avoid showing favoritism?
1. When one kid is looking for a leg up, pick up everybody's leg.
The irony is that every kid wants to feel like they're different and special in their own way. Your job is to do that without making them compete with each other. When one of your kids asks, "Am I the best swimmer in the family?," respond by saying, "I think you're the best swimmer, and George is the best baseball player, and Mary is the best painter," etc. That way, each of your children has the mentality that he or she is the best, but so are their siblings. There's no favoritism shown because everybody's the best at something. Try to divvy out your love and affection equally, but continue highlighting each child's uniqueness.
2. It's not personal - it's situational.
- If you have a new baby at home, explain to your older child, "Your brother is a newborn. He can't roll over or even scratch his butt - he can't do anything. So for a while, it's going to look like we're paying more attention to him, but you can scratch your butt and he can't." Your older child will think this is hilarious, and they'll get the picture (and wait for the day that their brother's hand reaches behind his back...)
- If one of your children is physically ill or disabled, inevitably there is going to be unequal treatment. Make it clear to your other kids that you are not choosing the disabled child over them, but that their sibling's condition simply requires more attention. Reassure your other kids that it's not personal - it's just situational.