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Letter from Steve Piltch


Steve Piltch, Head of School

October 2011

Dear Shipley Families:

I grew up as one of nine children. The pace was frenetic no matter what was going on. Though we had dinner as a family as often as possible, there were few things that we could all do together. In fact, I can only recall two or three times when all of us went out together to someone else’s house or even to a restaurant. We loved being a big family…it was the only thing we knew. Along the way we developed our own familial roles that to this day we still take on at times when we get together. For whatever reason, although we have all grown up (or at least are much older), we don’t always show it.

Throughout our childhood we often debated which siblings were our parents’ favorites.  All of us were sure we knew the answers. With whatever we thought and with whatever evidence we would produce, our parents denied having favorites for most of our years together. That said, and to my Mom’s credit later in life, she acknowledged that she did have favorites and that it was tied to who went the extra step to be of help to her. As she explained this to any number of us, she also emphasized that though she had favorites, it was not a sign that she loved any of one us more or less. In fact, she said more than once when we would do something foolish, “I may not always like all of you, but I always love all of you.”

I have wondered over the years whether all parents (who have more than one child) have favorites.  Certainly, if we do, it is a sensitive topic for both parents and children. If we acknowledge that we have favorites, what does it say about our ability to treat our kids equitably and fairly?  Moreover, we have to wonder how it impacts our children. If we deny it, what’s the message? Are we being hypocritical and counterproductive? I know that our own children have their views about who my wife’s and my favorites are. Most importantly, no matter what she or I may think or say, it doesn’t change their views.

Although there are many parents who claim not to have favorites, research indicates that the vast majority of parents do have favorites for lots of good reasons. In the Time Magazine cover story of October 3, 2011, “Why Mom Liked You Best, The Science of Favoritism,” Jeffrey Kluger cites the work of Catherine Conger, a professor at the University of California at Davis, who concluded that when parents have more than one child, 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child. As Kluger indicates in a summary of the article: “There aren't a lot of ironclad rules of family life, but here's one: No matter how much your parents deny it — and here's betting they deny it a lot — they have a favorite child. And if you're a parent, so do you.” (Read Kluger’s summary of the article or the article itself: )

What is it that spurs that favoritism? There is no one reason…it could be tied to birth order, gender, shared interests, health…or any number of other reasons. For example, it is not unusual to see either the first born or last born become a favorite. It is common for parents to be attached to a child of the opposite sex. Attachments can be especially strong when a child has the looks or mannerisms of a parent, and it is not unusual for parents to feel extra close to a child who has been seriously ill or challenged in some way. As Kluger notes, “The golden child may be the oldest one, unless it's the youngest. It may be the toughest one, unless it's the most sensitive. It's not even necessary that Mom and Dad have the same favorite — and typically they don't.”
Regardless of the reason, if we have a favorite, it is probably evident to our children. Most importantly, even if we do not have a favorite, if our child perceives that we do, the impact is the same.

Interestingly enough, most, if not all parents deny this possibility. We learn from an early age we should love our kids the same amount and treat them the same way. In turn, we work hard to dissuade the notion of favoritism and find ourselves saying things like: “We love our kids for the individuals they are.” Of course, even when we deny the favoritism that may really exist, our kids perceive it. Fortunately, even if our kids perceive the favoritism the vast majority also recognize that “the effort it takes to pretend it’s not so can itself be an act of love.”

Although we fight the urge to acknowledge favoritism, it is something we cannot choose or control. Kluger explains: “If it's any consolation for Mom and Dad — to say nothing of the unfavored kids — favoritism is hardwired into our species. Since families, at their evolutionary essence, exist principally as a way to get as many genes as possible into the next generation, we're programmed to place our bets on the kids who stand the greatest chance of being reproductively successful.”

Importantly, having favorites does not necessarily make us bad parents. In fact, the ability to acknowledge it, at least internally, provides us with the freedom to actually appreciate each child for his/her individual strengths and to show our genuine love for all of them. It is important to realize that, “Kids who feel less loved than another sibling have a higher risk of developing anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.” 

In the end, whether parents have favorites or not, all children are individuals with slightly different needs, which means they can and should be treated somewhat differently based on those needs. Even though we may not and should not treat them all the same, we can treat them fairly and effectively. Our job as parents, and educators, is to find the ways to show our appreciation for and love of the differences among our children and students.

We need to appreciate them for the individuals they are. We will continue to do what we can to enhance that process here at Shipley.

Warmest regards,

Steven S. Piltch
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