An Unconscious Preference

Several weeks ago I went to visit some friends who have two delightful children, a five year old boy and a three year old girl. As we were playing and laughing and creating fun, it became very clear to me how much the Mom favored the little girl. She was responded to immediately while the boy had to call the Mom three or four times before he was heard. At various times during the afternoon, the Mom would spontaneously pick up the girl, hug her, compliment her. The boy was kissed and hugged goodbye but very rarely at any other time. In the Mom’s phone, there were four times as many photos of the girl as of the boy and, as I contemplated all of this, I remembered how often I was told of something smart or funny or endearing that the girl had done. I was told these things about the boy before his sister came but not since.

Because I love the family and know the Mom to be an intelligent, caring person, I ventured gingerly, to let the Mom know what I had been observing. She became instantly indignant and categorically, denied everything. How hard it is for the conscious to know what the unconscious is doing!

The lovely little boy was already reacting. He had suddenly become belligerent--angry with his sister, writing on walls, pushing the rules, dissolving into tears immediately, saying “I hate you” to many people inappropriately. He was receiving the message that he wasn’t primary, not as loveable, not as wonderful as his sister, second rate and he was acting out his disappointment, his sadness and his anger.

Nor will his sister emerge from this situation unscathed. Not only will she be the object of her brother’s animosity but, somewhere, she will pick up the uneveness of the parental response and feel guilty for it and, perhaps, angry at herself as the catalyst for this situation.

I’m not suggesting that parents have to feel the same about each child. We can’t order our feelings but we can monitor our feelings and our actions, identify them, and when hurtful and inappropriate, change them. Were this mother open to looking at herself, she would identify what her unconscious was doing, try to understand it and manage and modify her behavior so that each child would feel primary, equally loved, respected and attended to. A large job of parenting is becoming aware of what the unconscious is doing and managing it rather than having it manage us into difficulties and pain.