Tale as old as time, true as it can be, favoritism does no one any favors. We all have the capacity for it in us, and the Bible details how favoritism can poison the lives of God’s people even though God Himself is impartial.
So far in this devotional series, we’ve covered healthy grief, forgiveness, identifying and dismantling past cycles, essentially the gamut of digging deep to mine out hard pieces of old in order to lay a fresh foundation to all that God intends for you and your own home. Before moving on to the fun part of building the personal and family culture of your dreams, let us address a sensitive but all too common subtopic that came up during the in-person life group of this devotional series, favoritism. In nearly 15 years of ministry, I’ve heard countless women share about the perpetual pain that has been caused by this specific cycle of behavior.
Romans 2:11 “For God shows no partiality.”
Ephesians 6:9b “…there is no partiality with [God].”
As we move forward in this topic, remember that God is not partial with His children, thus partiality with our children is ungodly.
Everyone in every extended family won’t be best friends forever and always. Personalities can differ as much as oil and water, which God can use to sanctify and grow us by placing us in families with people that we might otherwise never naturally develop friendships with. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, but family can ruffle each other’s feathers in an iron-sharpens-iron sort of way, if we choose to appreciate virtues beyond the lazier route of only selecting relationships with people who comfortably remind us of ourselves.
As we discuss favoritism, I hope it goes without saying that the difficulty doesn’t lie with good-natured closeness among family members that organically arise out of similarities in age, careers, sports fandom, etc. However the topic discussed here is the painful family culture of friction and tension that is bred and sustained if and when a parent, step-parent, grandparent, parent-in-law, or close relative actively invests more or less care in the bond with one child over the other(s).
Despite family favoritism being so common, it’s not often addressed, partly due to the lopsided burden of those involved. Favoritism is not a uniformly experienced behavior. For example, if someone is prone to sarcasm, they usually impose their hostile humor evenly amongst family members. Anyone can potentially fall prey to their stabbing words. Yet if someone in a family is prone to favoritism, the un-favored person experiences it quite differently than the favored. The un-favored person bears most of the discomfort, but is the least free to point out the issue or else they could be accused of envy, complaining, oversensitivity, etc, which will only further diminish their already reduced position.
Favoritism is nebulous, veiled but obvious, unspoken but understood, and awkward. It’s the gorilla in the corner that everyone sees but no one acknowledges because it’s ugly and scary.
While favoritism is more common than it is openly discussed, its cyclical effects are exemplified clearly through Scripture: Abraham had two sons, Isaac was favored and Ishmael was not. Then Isaac had two sons, Esau he favored, while Jacob was favored by Rebecca. Then, despite how favoritism had a role in tearing apart Jacob’s family, he himself went on to overtly favor Joseph over his other sons. This is an example in God’s Word of how one particular sinful pattern can be carried forward generation after generation – even in a family of God – unless one decides to end it.
In families, there is temptation on both receiving ends of favoritism: the temptation for the favored to revel in their status, and the temptation for the un-favored to resent their status. Yet no one should be boastful nor bitter because the status they hold actually has way less to do with them personally, and way more to do with the internal issues of the favorer. Far more often than not, it’s about the favorer, not you.
There are countless reasons why a parent or relative would treat one child more favorably than the other(s), but I believe that most reasons often fall under three main categories:
- MERIT-BASED FAVORITISM
- FEAR-BASED FAVORITISM
- PROJECTED FAVORITISM
Again, all categories still come back to issues that lie within the heart and life of the favorer, as will be described further in each section following. For simplicity’s sake, the wording of most examples describes favoritism as one favorer or one favored, but keep in mind that favoritism can take on a myriad of creative forms. Some families may have one clear favorer with one clearly favored child, but there are scores of families in which both parents favor one child, a step-parent favors the child(ren) they entered a new blended family with, etc. Commonly in homes of two or more children, one parent favors one child while the other parent favors another child. This is nothing new, and neither is the marital discord attached to it, as such was the case in the Bible with Isaac and Rebecca.
Merit-based favoritism is when the parent(s), parent(s)-in-law, or relative(s) sees something in the person they favor that “earns” them the favored position.
Examples include that the favored child:
- Has accomplishments or acts in ways that the parent believes to reflect well on the image they desire.
- Performs well at the same favorite sport or activity as the parent(s).
- May even be better at that activity, then embodying an unfulfilled dream for the parent(s).
- Doesn’t star in a certain activity, but simply their shared interest can cause a parent to feel a stronger connection to them.
- Has a similar temperament to their parent, and so the parent feels a greater understanding of that child and reasons it to be a closer relationship.
- Physically resembles a parent more closely and the parent(s) feeling more affection for the one who is their “twin” or “mini-me”.
Enjoying shared interests and resemblance is not problematic, unless it’s cause for favoritism.
All of these examples highlight the parent who desires a child to be like them, and they reward whichever child that is with more love.
One excuse for favoring one child over others could have nothing to do with merit but just the fact that they are something that the favorer always wanted: whether a girl or a boy, for example. Parenting is about sowing into the next generation, not about the parents having a son or a daughter for whatever reason, as one would pick out a puppy according to the lifestyle they envision.
Fear-based favoritism shows that family partiality isn’t limited to the amount of love given, but can revolve around the attention and/or concern given to a member.
Many families have that one or two members who’s difficult to deal with. The difficulty may be that the person is high maintenance, moody, hard to please, immature, easily offended, openly critical, needy, troubled, or generally aloof. They control the dynamics of gatherings by their presence, their lateness, their rudeness, their disengagement, their criticisms, their standard of care, or their demands.
Examples of how a fear-based favored family member ensures they are the center of attention and/or concern may include:
- Everyone tiptoes around eggshells to keep this person feeling happy and satisfied, knowing that if they don’t get their way, it’s a long night for everyone.
- Ideas for where to go out to eat or what to do and when, revolve around what will make the favored person show up or be happy.
- Every member defers and bends to that person’s schedule to determine family plans.
- This person’s opinions always matter most, and everyone must listen as s/he dominates any group conversation.
- Absolutely no one is allowed to say or do anything that may possibly offend or upset the favored person in any way.
- A parent may try to compensate for a child or adult child’s inferiority complex in relation to their siblings by showering them with attention and compliments, assuming that the other siblings will be understanding.
- A parent may choose to go with the favored child’s choice “just so we don’t have to hear about it”. It might not even occur to the parent(s) to consider asking for your input because it’s only the input of the favored that matters or makes any difference.
Instead of taking the courage to have an uncomfortable conversation with this person about how their actions affect the whole family, many parents settle for being uncomfortable in the long term by bending over backwards to fully accommodate one central figure at the expense of everyone else. This favoritism is not based on merit, but fear. Unfortunately for the parent – and everyone else – they don’t realize that they are ensnared in their fear, their actions being completely controlled by the child that they fearfully favor.
Proverbs 29:25 “The fear of man lays a snare…”
An intense league where fear-based favoritism can play out is in the relationships between in-laws and blended families.
Sometimes a parent, parent-in-law, or step-parent may favor a child out of fear that their child(ren) may form or strengthen a deeper bond with another parent, parent-in-law, or step-parent. Their actions may have nothing to do with disfavoring you, and everything to do with the threat – perceived or real – that they feel in relation to the other people who are near to the child that they desperately want to keep close to them.
Examples of this sort of fear-based favoritism can include:
- Dictating the holiday or special occasion schedule based around what will garner them the most time with the favored child(ren).
- A consuming regard for what will make the favored child(ren) feel the closest to them, doting specifically over them to ensure their enjoyment, especially if grandchildren or step-children are involved.
- Comparison and criticism towards the other family relatives in an effort to compete for affection.
- Competition over gifts given and/or experiences shared.
- Disproportionate concern and attentiveness over the favored child(ren)’s needs or preferences at all times.
- Inability and unwillingness to correct or say anything if/when the favored child(ren) offend, impose, or act unbecomingly, for fear of alienating the favored one(s) and potentially losing their closeness to another family member.
Merit-based and fear-based favoritism are both harmful byproducts of conditional love: Merit-based favoritism is a product of the favorer’s conditional love, whereas fear-based favoritism is a product of the perceived conditional love that the favorer reacts to in others. In merit-based favoritism, the parent conditionally loves based on a child’s performance. In fear-based favoritism, the parent performs for the conditional love of a child.
Projected favoritism is when the parent(s), parent(s)-in-law, or relative(s) habitually exalts or humbles one family member or another, as a projection of or a deflection from, their own insecurity.
There are countless insecurities that a person can have that contribute to their projected favoritism, many of which may be inconspicuous even to them. Usually it’s not just a singular issue like ego, jealousy, narcissism, or inferiority, but also rather multiple entangled layers that can make their projected behavior as inconsistent as it is bewildering. Therefore, it can be difficult to identify and describe projected favoritism and its twisted sources, even if you feel it profoundly.
Though numerous, most of the reasons behind projected favoritism stem from a parent, parent-in-law, or relative’s partiality towards the child that they perceive to make their worth feel valuable, or contempt towards the child that they perceive to make their worth feel invalidated or inadequate.
Examples of reasons for projected favoritism can include:
- Favoring whoever makes them feel most needed, thus valuable.
- Favoring whoever praises and flatters them.
- Disfavoring whoever is perceived to be independently more successful, more popular, or happier.
- Disfavoring whoever is perceived to challenge the boundaries of their territory.
- Disfavoring anyone they view as a threat to their own position in a family or shared circle.
Examples of projected behaviors of jealousy, contempt, and passive-aggressive insecurity can include:
- Regularly taking a contrary position or attitude to anything you say, in an effort to make you feel or appear smaller, personally or among a group.
- Regularly correcting or criticizing anything you do, in an effort to assert themselves as smarter or to make you feel like you can’t do anything right.
- Openly conversing about all the highlights of the favored child’s life happenings, while avoiding conversing about anything happening in your life.
- Praising others while your accomplishments or abilities are overlooked, purposely ignored, or downplayed.
- Rarely or never complimenting you, lest you get the idea that anything you are or have is impressive or worth acknowledging. Often it’s what they don’t say that speaks volumes.
All of these actions are about making you insecure as a projection of, or deflection from, another person’s own insecurity. It’s about bringing you low or preventing you from rising. This manipulative behavior originates in the heart. Rather than try to change theirs, God tells us to guard ours. Do this, and watch your life spring no matter what anyone projects upon you!
Proverbs 4:23 “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
POSSIBLE WAYS TO ADDRESS THE CYCLE OF FAVORITISM:
For the favorer: Acknowledge and repent
- Acknowledge that favoritism is ungodly and hurtful. Your actions of favoritism are actually damaging not only to the one(s) you disfavor, but to those you are partial to as well, for it sets them up to thrive in an imbalanced atmosphere that is not realistic in the true world. A child raised as extra-special is destined for a harsh introduction into normal relationships. Lastly, favoritism is costly to you as the favorer. It is a sinful cycle with the potential to limit the depth of your relationships and personal character indefinitely.
- Identify the source behind your favoritism. Did you learn it in your own childhood home? Favoritism is notorious for being passed down from one generation to the next. The book of Genesis shows us how it ran from Abraham to his son Isaac, from Isaac to his sons Esau and Jacob, and from Jacob to his son Joseph, all without skipping a beat! Is your favoritism merit-based? Fear-based? A projection? By turning away from this cycle, it can begin to lose its grip on your life.
For the favored: Recognize and resist temptation or guilt
- More often than not, whether spoken or not, it’s pretty clear to everyone in the room who’s the favorite(s).
- If you recognize it, avoid the temptation to use this to your advantage. In Genesis, we see that Jacob was well aware that he was Rebecca’s favorite son, and readily conspired with her to undercut his own brother and deceive his father Isaac. You are not responsible to compensate for being favored, but it is wrong to leverage it. Be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9)
- Don’t feel the need to ingest guilt or blame for being favored. Usually you can’t control being favored because again, this cycle typically stems from the heart issues of the one doing the favoring. In Genesis, we see that Joseph didn’t have a say in being the youngest of Jacob’s sons and Rachel’s only child. Those were circumstances out of his control, which his parent chose to elevate.
- Do not invite blame though. When we look again at Genesis, Joseph couldn’t control that his father favored him, but he could control how he carried himself when around his brothers. Joseph didn’t need to broadcast to his brothers that he dreamt that one day they’d bow before him. Perhaps Joseph just had an immature moment with being so young, but a little self-awareness can go a long way. It would be hard for Joseph to miss the fact that he was already the favorite, considering that only 1 out of 12 sons was sporting a fancy coat from Dad. “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)
For the un-favored: Forgive and proceed freely with your own life
- Accept that you cannot control what controls those that favor. Favoritism flows out of their heart-set, which unless you choose to view through a healthy mindset, could cause a root of bitterness to grow within you. Know that unless you can control another human’s heart, you will never be able to control how they favor or treat others relative to you. Only God can change a heart, and only if that person has made Him Lord of their heart. Forgive, knowing that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2)
- Proceed freely in your own life, not allowing your identity and actions to be affected by the favoritism around you. Know that you are loved and highly favored by Christ Jesus, who preferred you to His own favorable position at the right hand of God the Father and condescended to sacrifice His life for yours.
- Do not get caught in the wheel of trying to win affection or admiration through overachievement, passive-aggressive manipulation, or competitive undercutting. That is a game in which every player loses. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (Philippians 4:5)
- Be careful not to allow the dis-favoritism that you experience to reflect on how you view your relationship to God. God does not see or act as man does (1 Samuel 16:7), He is not weak to favoritism. In Matthew 9:34, the disciples are seen arguing with each other over, of all things, who was the greatest. Humans naturally want to feel significant, very significant, but God tells us there is no need or sound reason to compete for His love or attention. He does not play hard to get. God runs TOWARDS us even if and when we are still far off (Luke 15:20) and He welcomes us to COME to Him (Matthew 11:28). Rest assured that there is room for everyone in the scope of God’s love and attention, and there is a space open just for you as you are in His heart.
- While many live in conflict praying for peace, live in peace praying over the conflict. (See Isaiah 26:3 and Philippians 4:6-7)
- Choose to conduct yourself in your family according to the influence of God, not the influence of favoritism. Do not allow the way that you are treated by others in your family to dictate the way that you treat others in your family. If you are a person of joy, do not leave your joy at the door the moment you step into their house. If you see something worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8), do not withhold mentioning it just because you yourself never hear praise from them. Feel free to generously give kind words, encouragement, compliments, and gratitude where there is opportunity, “for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:22). Life is too brief to spend it living in response to anyone but God first.
The cycle of favoritism is not impossible to break. It takes continued effort and may not disappear overnight, but it truly can be resolved. Jacob and Esau eventually reconciled, there was eventual forgiveness between Joseph and his brothers, and your family too can be transformed and healed through humble submission to Christ and each other! (Ephesians 5:21)
Yet even if this cycle never changes in your family of origin, you are not predestined to follow in the same patterns. Do not allow favoritism of any kind to be a discouragement to you as you strive to sow healthy reciprocal relationships in marriage and motherhood, seeking the blessing of God Himself over any person!
Galatians 1:10 “…If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Proverbs 4:25-26 “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure.
- Was a pattern of favoritism displayed in your childhood home? Is there a current pattern of favoritism displayed in your immediate and/or extended family? Who and why?
- Have you been, or are you, perpetually favored or un-favored?
- Do you favor one parent over the other? One set of parents over the other (if a married or blended family) Why?
- Do you have favorites among your children? Why?
- Where are you tempted to display favoritism in your family? How has this affected your connection with certain family members?
- What healthy steps can you take in light of a disharmonious family dynamic, depending on if you are:
- The favorer?
- The favored?
- The un-favored?