Avoiding Demonstrations of Favoritism

Q: We are the parents of three children. The youngest is eight-year-old Zalmy*, who has two older sisters, ages 13 and 15. As Zalmy was a long-awaited brachah, he has clearly received the “royal treatment” throughout his life. I try to show equal concern and care to all the children, but my husband doesn’t do the same.

He denies treating our son differently, but it is obvious to anyone that he is doing so. “He’s the only boy!” he’ll say. (Who else can he play ball with?) Zalmy has a slight stuttering problem, so my husband shows much rachmanus about this, as well.

Zalmy can be quite annoying to his older sisters, calling them names or teasing them. He knows he can get away with this, because his father lets him get away with all types of misbehavior. If I get involved, my husband feels I am being too strict. If I insist that my husband enforce consequences for negative behavior, it is done halfheartedly and inconsistently. His sisters greatly resent their brother at this point.

Zalmy also has social problems with his classmates, as he only sees the other boy’s part in peer disputes and is blind to what he himself is doing wrong. He feels that he is being picked on because of his speech impediment, but doesn’t realize when he is showing off or insulting others.

Though my husband shows warmth and affection towards his daughters, they feel that he clearly favors their brother. They would rather have the “privileged relationship” their brother enjoys with him than the kind verbal comments he directs their way.

Finally, Zalmy is immature and displays no independence. He comes to my husband and me about little things that he should be able to figure out or do on his own.

What are your suggestions?

A: It is often difficult to convince a parent that he is spoiling his children. Or he may rationalize his behavior by saying, “My parents spoiled me, and I didn’t turn out so badly!”

As trying to convince your husband of this has not been successful, perhaps you need to focus on Zalmy’s lack of maturity, and his sisters’ resentment of him. Allowing him to be more independent, and letting him figure out ways to cope with sibling conflicts, would be a good beginning.

Having an open conversation with Zalmy, with one or both parents present, is the first step. Start off by compassionately expressing how you feel bad about his relationship with his older sisters. Then ask open-ended questions (those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no), asking him how he perceives the situation. (“What do you think is the reason Rivky speaks that way to you?”) After hearing his analysis, you can offer alternative ways of viewing the situation.

Using a “cushion method” (cushioning your direct observations with a soft statement proceeding it and closing with another soft statement afterwards), you can share your observations. For example: Cushion number one: “I can imagine that sometimes it’s difficult having two sisters so much older than you.” Direct observation: “But I see that when you speak about your special gift from Tattie — your new bicycle — so often, it annoys them.” Cushion number two: “You probably weren’t even aware of this.” By cushioning your direct comment, you set things up so that the blow to his ego is less difficult to endure.

In relation to Zalmy’s immaturity and lack of independence, work on positive reinforcement. Make a chart that reflects his achievements in this area, and reward him when he completes a task he has not previously accomplished. When he successfully navigates a difficult sibling conflict at home (without anyone’s help), this, too, can be rewarded. The focus needs to be on Zalmy’s growing abilities, not what he has been lacking up to this point.