Can Grandparents Avoid Playing Favorites?

Having Favorites Can't Be Avoided, But Playing Favorites Can Be

grandmother gives favorite granddaughter extra gifts
Giving one grandchild more gifts than the other grandchildren is a recipe for family conflict. Photo © Indeed | Getty Images

Favoritism is a dirty word in most families. Both parents and grandparents want to believe that they are not guilty of playing favorites. Many psychologists say that there are favorites in every family. The key to sound parenting and grandparenting is to realize that one may have favorites, but that it's not okay to play favorites. In other words, grandparents must strive to provide appropriate love and support for all their grandchildren, regardless of the level of affection they feel.

Special Challenges for Grandparents

Avoiding favoritism can be even more difficult for grandparents than for parents. It is easier to treat children and grandchildren equally if you can treat them the same. Because one is likely to have more diversity in grandchildren than in children, treating them the same becomes impossible, and treating them equally becomes difficult.

Here are some of the ways in which grandchildren may be different from each other:

  • They are likely to be varied in age.
  • They are likely to be of different genders.
  • They are likely to have differing economic situations.
  • They may live in different families, and grandparents may have closer relationships with some of their adult children than others.
  • Some grandchildren may be the offspring of divorced parents. Divorce can weaken family ties when it makes contacting the grandchildren difficult. It can strengthen the grandparent-grandchild relationship in situations where the grandparent becomes kind of a surrogate parent.

Added to these differences in grandchildren's circumstances, grandchildren will also exhibit individual differences that will affect how grandparents relate to them.

  • Children who have behavior problems may be harder to love.
  • Children who have health issues may receive extra attention.
  • Children may have personality clashes with grandparents.

Fluid Favoritism Versus Fixed Favoritism

Dr. Ellen Libby, author of The Favorite Child, says that favoritism has a lifelong impact, but that there are ways to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives. One way to do this is by practicing fluid favoritism rather than fixed favoritism. In fluid favoritism, a child may be favored because of his stage of life, or because his interests coincide with the parents' or grandparents' interests. Each child gets his or her "time in the sun."

Most parents and grandparents favor one particular stage of childhood. Some love infants and toddlers. Others don't really bond with children until they become more like adults. These preferences may drive  fluid favoritism. 

Fluid favoritism can also occur in response to changes in family circumstances. If a grandchild is sharing your home, you are going to spend more time with that grandchild. If one of your adult children is in financial difficulty, you are probably going to spend more money on the grandchildren in that family.

The key is to make sure that the favoritism doesn't outlast the specific situations that engendered it.

Awareness of Playing Favorites

Dr. Libby also notes a high degree of consensus among family members about which individuals are favored. She reports that early in her career she observed multi-generational family groups who were asked questions about favoritism. Families who could agree on almost nothing else exhibited a high degree of agreement about favorites. Sometimes, however, the ones who are playing favorites claim to be unaware of their behavior.

What this means for parents and grandparents is that they need to have conversations with their children and grandchildren about favoritism. Ask questions such as the following:

  • Do you know that I love you?
  • Do you think I like some of my grandchildren more than others?
  • What makes you think so?
  • What do I do that makes you believe this?
  • How does that make you feel?
  • Have you ever been my favorite?
  • Do you believe that you will be my favorite again?

Older grandchildren may be able to handle some more complex questions:

  • Do you love all of your grandparents equally?
  • Do you understand why it is difficult to treat all grandchildren equally?

Avoiding Playing Favorites

Besides having discussions within the family about favoritism, grandparents should also closely monitor their behavior. There are three primary ways in which grandparents sometimes play favorites, and all of these can play havoc with family dynamics:

  • They choose to spend more time with certain grandchildren, and not for reasons of geographical closeness or other considerations that are out of their control.
  • They spend more readily on some grandchildren, and not for reasons of real financial need.
  • They may be more critical of non-favored grandchildren and more effusive in praising their favorites. Observers may note that a grandparent seems blind to the positive qualities of a less-favored grandchild, or that the grandparent can see only positives in a favored grandchild.

Because they involve spending money and time, the holidays are ripe for demonstrations of favoritism

In Summary

Favoritism is a part of family life, but its impact can be lessened if you:

  • Become aware of your own biases.
  • Discuss the topic of favoritism openly with family members.
  • Be as equitable as possible in spending money and time with grandchildren.
  • Avoid criticism.
  • Lavish praise, hugs and other signs of affection on all of your grandchildren.