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A column that tackles behavioural problems from toddlers to teens

The problem

Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to favour one of your children over another. But it can happen anyway.

“I was slicing pieces of pie for Stefan and Noah, but one of the slices came out kind of a mess. Without thinking, I gave the nicer-looking piece to Stefan.”

“You always give him the best pieces.”

“That’s not so, Noah.”

But what if it is so? What if you look into your heart and you do seem to favour one of your children over another, even love one of your children more than another?

What not to do

Don’t waste your time berating yourself as to how you are a terrible person and an unfit parent. If you have more than one child, you are going to feel differently about each of them – because they are different. This is not bad. It is normal.

Also don’t spend too much time trying to figure out how it happened. “Somehow Stefan reminds me of my father. No, maybe that’s not it.” You rarely can pinpoint the exact reason. Besides, it’s really hard to change your feelings about your kids.

What to do

Be aware. And if your actions do blatantly favour one over another, you need to change that. Catch yourself. Sometimes give Noah the bigger slice of pie. Show the same enthusiasm in listening when each tells you about his day. Try to find activities where you can enjoy your less-favoured child.

But if they regularly complain, “You do, you always favour Stefan. You love him more than me.”

Sometimes you may want to respond. If so, I think it’s best to say something like, “I probably do love each of you differently, because each of you is different. But I don’t love either of you more.”

Even if it’s true, never say: “You’re right. I do love Stefan a little more than you.”

What can they do with that? Even if the idea was to validate their feelings, how can that be useful? It makes it official. Officially less. Officially No. 2. Not so good.

It is not a disaster if you may prefer one more than the other. But you do want to stay aware and try to be as equal as you can.

“Maybe she loved us the same, but I sure did end up with a lot more of the crappy pieces.”

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up. E-mail him your thorny questions at awolf@globeandmail.com.