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Playing Favorites Can Wreak Havoc in a Stepfamily

Stepfamilies are especially vulnerable to parental favoritism

A number of Old Testament families struggled with favoritism as it related to children, stepchildren, and half-siblings. Perhaps you have fallen into the same trap.

Rebekah favored her younger son Jacob over his brother Esau (see Genesis 27). She conspired with Jacob to trick her husband, Isaac, into giving the paternal blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. This widened a family divide that resulted in Esau trying to hunt down Jacob to kill him.

Jacob then had to flee to a far-off country to avoid being hurt by his brother. He would later fall in love with a woman named Rachel, but he was tricked by her father into marrying her sister, Leah. With Leah, the wife he didn’t love, Jacob had many sons; with the wife he did love, Rachel, he had a special son, Joseph. It is here that the family pattern of showing favoritism continued.

Joseph and his half-brothers all shared the same father, but they and their mothers were not loved in the same way Joseph and his mother were. Eventually, the growing resentment within Joseph’s half-brothers escalated until they could no longer tolerate their father’s favoritism. When the favored son was presented with an extravagant robe at age 17, Leah’s sons had enough. They wanted Joseph gone—dead, if necessary—and they set out to kill him.

In case you didn’t notice, sibling rivalry is one predictable outcome of parental favoritism. Unfortunately, stepfamilies are especially vulnerable to it.

Yours versus mine

Stepparents who also have their own children recognize more profoundly the differences in affection, responsibility, and love they feel toward their stepchildren. One stepdad, Mike, said, “I did not realize how hard it would be to love my stepdaughter the same as my two biological children.” But feeling different should not translate into inequity in how children are treated. The trap is in favoring your children.

Jennifer sent me an email saying, “I have four children and my husband, Rob, has two. While we very seldom argue, without question the issue when we do argue is that he is harsher in disciplining my children than he is his own. When he brings up issues now, I tend to get upset and defensive. I try to listen objectively but it is very difficult. Plus, my kids resent having to do things his children don’t. Now they are fighting.”

The point is simple (though it may not be simple to live out): Do your best to treat your children and your stepchildren fairly.

But how? Does this mean that you have to be vigilant in appropriating your time and money so that everyone gets the same amount? Since the answer is essentially a heart issue, not a time or money issue, I would say, “Generally, yes, but specifically, no.”

Be equitable

In biological families, for example, parents don’t spend the exact same amount of money on each child for birthdays, but they still love each child the same. How much they spend is influenced by the age of the child, their likes, interests, and developmental maturity. Similarly in a blended family, age differences may mean you spend a few dollars more on your child this Christmas than on a stepchild.

Eventually it will balance out because you aren’t overtly favoring your child. In other words, over time you can still be equitable in your giving without being exactly the same on any given occasion, because you have purposed in your heart to love and treat them fairly.

Another example relates to special time spent with a child. For example, it is entirely healthy to have special parent/child outings with just one or two children and not others (like a hunting trip, getaway, etc.). But be sure to let all the children experience such occasions as time and opportunity allows.

For example, if visitation with your children is on the weekends, you may want to spend a Saturday afternoon with just your children to make the most of your time (you don’t have to feel guilty about making this a priority). However, I would discourage you from making this an every weekend habit. Instead, alternate your outings over time with different combinations of kids.

Stay flexible and adjust your schedule in order to communicate a strong commitment to both children and stepchildren. The point is, don’t have obvious inequalities in how you treat your children and your stepchildren over time. You can “exasperate” a child—and your spouse—in a hurry by doing so (see Ephesians 6:4 NIV).

TAKE ACTION

Watch out for these favoritism traps:

1. Gift giving from you or others. Politely ask grandparents, if necessary, to generally spend the same amount of money on all the children.

2. Time. Noncustodial parents should prioritize time with their children during visitation, but balance it with time for everyone.

3. Delivering punishment or extending mercy to a child. Strive to be objective in discipline; parent/stepparent discussions can help to balance decisions.

4. Chores and responsibilities. Don’t burden some children more than others. Everyone should “pull their own weight.”

Ministry tip:

Stepsibling conflict may be a sign of favoritism by one or both parents. Gently help parents to see how they are inadvertently setting the family up for conflict with their behavior. Encourage them to “act justly” toward everyone in their home no matter what their history or family connection.


Copyright © 2012 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

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