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Diana Ser: Can you love all your kids equally?

I was the favoured child, but I was not happier for it.

Diana Ser: Can you love all your kids equally?

Diana Ser with her husband, James Lye, and their three children. Photo: Diana Ser

I was the favoured child, but I was not happier for it.

Yes, I got scolded less, and my family moved so that I could be closer to my secondary school.

But throughout my childhood, I was burdened with guilt, particularly towards my younger sister. It was all too easy to compare us girls.

“Why is your sister smart and you are not?” one relative asked my sister, who was not more than 10 at the time.

She was sullen. I was simmering with indignation.

Now, with three kids, I often ask myself tremulously, do I love them all the same?

Do I show — gulp — favouritism?

I think of it as the “F” word that elicits the “D” responses — Dismay, Defensiveness or Denial. Or in my recent case, all of the above.

“Why does Gor Gor get more food?” asked my number two at the dining table.

Time seemed to freeze as I contemplated my response, terrified to be judged by my 8-year-old.

How could I tell her that it was a combination of gender bias (boys eat more) and guilt (I feel I did not properly feed him as a toddler) that presented itself as, well, favouritism?

Yes, there can be many complex, interlacing factors that influence the way we treat our children: Birth order, gender, our own childhood experiences, the kids’ personalities and even circumstances.

A friend of mine, a mother of three, Wendy Chan, says: “I am kind of a reactive person. I give attention when needed, so generally the kid that makes the most noise will get my attention, or the one that is most needy will get my focus and attention.

“I want to love them all equally, but I find that my daily actions don’t reflect this.”

Ditto.

After casting around for answers, here’s the first thing I found useful: Parental love and parental favouritism are not the same thing.

Love is unconditional, favouritism is not. That means I can put my hand on my heart and truthfully say that I love all my children the same!

And why not?

They all came from the same womb and I nursed them each from scrawny newborn to chubby cherub. I will use my last breaths to tell each one “I love you the most”.

Isn’t a mother’s heart big enough for any number of superlatives?

Experts generally agree that parental favouritism is entirely commonplace and, yes, even normal.

“It is my belief that 95 per cent of the parents in the world have a favourite child, and the other 5 per cent are lying,” writes Jeffrey Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us.

Another expert says it is “impossible” not to have a favourite.

Before you go out and officially anoint your favourite, here is the thing: Consistent and arbitrary differences in treatment is a recipe for disaster.

Research has shown plenty of effects of parental favouritism — sibling relationships, self-esteem, resentment and guilt, just to name a few.

To complicate matters, it is the perception of favouritism — not necessarily any differential treatment itself — that does the harm. And we all know how quick the kids are with their protests of “not fair”.

Goodness me. This is the point where I think: I should have just had one.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist and author of The Favourite Child, said some families have a “shifting favouritism”.

That means the siblings sort of take turns to be the favourite child. This can yield a healthy, normal competitiveness, said Libby.

Frankly, this sounds a bit manipulative, but it does make sense.

All kids are unique individuals with their own quirks and peculiarities, and parent-child relationships take place in dynamic environments.

In other words, parents respond to each child based on his or her characteristics and personality, as well as the prevailing contexts.

Recently, I left all three at home while I dashed out for an errand. Before I left, I instructed number two to “please look after your siblings”.

When I returned, I found out that she had helped to shower her siblings including her older brother. She provided a “shower service” of which her siblings were customers. They love to role-play and all had a jolly good time.

Of course, I gave her due praise and thanked her for her initiative. I suppose at that moment, she was the favourite child.

Rather than obsess over every interaction with our kids, it probably pays to adopt a more long-term view.

Mother of three Wendy says, “As long as the love and attention with each kid evens off in the long run, then it should be okay.”

Thomas Ho, the father of two girls aged 8 and 11, told me: “I used to feel that, as a child, my father loved my younger sister more than my older sister and I.

“But at the end of the day, as long as none of the children feel unloved or neglected by either of the parents, I think it will be fine. ”

He added that, “whatever one child gets, we make sure the other one is entitled to have as well”.

So perhaps it is not fair to say my parents “favoured” me. As a parent now, I can see why I got scolded less, for example.

I was an obedient firstborn who did what was expected of me. I had the best grades amongst my siblings, so my parents were probably hedging their bets when they decided to move closer to my school.

Has the favouritism — perceived or real — affected my relationship with my sister?

Absolutely not. We remain close even when she lived overseas for a while.

But it did affect her growing up.

“I grew up with a nonchalant attitude, easier to block out the ugly stuff,” she said.

She also shared that she was well into her twenties before feeling secure about her place in life.

As parents, we should try our best to love them the same, and hope that our best is good enough.

Diana Ser is a TV host who currently runs online portal Crazy About Chinese that encourages parents to teach their children the Chinese language through daily activities. She is married to actor-turned-bank executive James Lye and they have three children, aged five to 10.

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