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Playing Favorites

The Torah is full of stories of sibling rivalry, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers. But is the Bible an accurate representation of reality, or overstating the case?

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The Bennett sisters, an early-20th-century vaudeville duo. (Library of Congress)

For nearly a year, starting when she was 2, Josie begged for a sister. “I will share my toys! I will kiss her! I will feed her!” Imagine how thrilled we were to announce, just before Josie turned 3, that she would be receiving her heart’s desire. And when we brought Maxine home, Josie was elated. She raced around the apartment singing “Happy birthday” and dancing maniacally. She showered the baby with kisses. She held her gently. After a couple of hours, though, she asked, “Where will the baby sleep?” Upon being told, “Here—she’s going to live here,” Josie’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps she thought the crib that had materialized in her room was for the cat.

Fortunately, I did not look to the Torah for advice on raising siblings. Sibling relationships in our tradition are a mess, starting with Cain and Abel (result: dead Abel.) It goes on and on: Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Good times all around.

But who can blame our ancestors for being such crappy siblings? For generations, no one in their family modeled healthy familial relationships. Science, not just story, backs up the fact that sibling favoritism can have nasty consequences. A 2009 study of moms of adult children, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that perceived favoritism hurts both the “favored” and “unfavored.” It’s obvious why the latter would be irked by “Mom always liked you best!” but the former also showed depressive symptoms, even years later as middle-aged adults. Favorites felt guilt as well as the need to cope with negative, distant, resentful siblings.

Parents do acknowledge that they’re closer to some kids than others. (But is that really favoritism? You tell me.) In the 2009 study, 70 percent of the moms surveyed named one kid they felt closest to, and 73 percent named a kid with whom she had the most arguments and disagreements. Another study, this one from Current Directions in Psychological Science, found that a third to two thirds of American families evidence parental favoritism. Sometimes this is natural—parents inherently give newborns and kids with illness or disabilities more attention. Sometimes it’s surprising: Parents often feel closer to their same-gender children; first-born children get the most privileges and last-born children get the most affection. Jan Brady was right. It’s tough to be stuck in the middle.

However—and this is key—kids seem to feel there’s more parental favoritism than there actually is. In that same study, only 15 percent of children said their moms showed no favoritism at all, but 30 percent of moms said they didn’t have favorites.

Do I love one child best? When my own spawn demand an answer to this question, I reply with the excellent words of writer/therapist Amy Bloom: “Love is not a pie.” Love is not a finite thing to be sectioned up and doled out; it’s infinite. My kids are never satisfied by this answer.

And I mostly don’t believe I have a favorite child. Mostly. But then I think back to a brutally truthful 2006 essay by Ayelet Waldman in the late, lamented Child magazine. Waldman, with her typical coruscating honesty, wrote that she let her youngest child get away with murder because she couldn’t resist her adorability. Her older kids noticed. “What’s killing them is that they are absolutely sure she’s my favorite. And they’re right—she is. Right now.”

Waldman goes on to explain that different kids hold the privileged position of favorite at different times. “You must never favor one child over the other, the rule goes,” she writes. “But the secret, hidden truth is that we often do. Parenting is a passionate enterprise. It’s about love: untempered, unbound love. And anyone who has ever been in love knows that it’s not a judicious, balanced endeavor.”

My truth is that I love my kids differently. I am gobsmacked by Josie’s insights. I love talking about books and social justice with her. As a dork and a nerd, I watch with endless admiration the way she navigates the world socially. But I feel fierce protectiveness toward Maxine. She’s the one who squeezes my heart until it hurts. Her cheerfulness and funniness and resilience just slay me. Does that mean I love Maxie more?

In the recently released book Freud’s Blind Spot, Elisa Albert, a contributor to Tablet Magazine, collects essays about the pleasures and terrors of siblinghood. The book’s title refers to the fact that Freud gave short shrift to sibs. “Some scholars have lately called for a reassessment of [this] vertical model,” Albert writes. “What about the horizontal model, they ask? What about lateral influence?” (The italics are hers.) Indeed, she finds, “Our siblings are central actors in the drama of our lives: they are our earliest and deepest connections, our poles, our friends, our contemporaries, our cohorts, our first loves and resented rivals … we tend to define ourselves in alliance with and/or in opposition to them.” Of the familiar Erev Shabbat blessing, “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe,” Albert writes: “Recently I learned it’s because Ephraim and Menashe are the only two siblings in the Bible who get along.” Oh.

The book is filled with stories of siblings who fight furiously. Sometimes they come to love and understand each other. Sometimes they don’t. Steve Almond writes about how when he was 5, his older brother, Dave, told him their pregnant cat Macacheese (Macacheese!) has just birthed a litter of stillborn kittens because Steve had accidentally dropped her the week before. (Later, knowing that Steve sucks his thumb, Dave secretly rubbed his digits with a raw hot pepper.) Another contributor, Margo Rabb, doesn’t grow close to her sister until after her parents are dead. “We share genes, a history, and the only bits of our parents we have left,” she writes. “And she’s the only person who understands how we can sit beside our parents’ graves on a sunny afternoon, and then go out for sushi and stuff ourselves and still laugh, even now, until we nearly burst.”

Apparently stabbing one’s sibling with a pencil is a thing. T. Cooper spikes one into his brother’s thigh. Alyssa, a 6th-grade character in Caldecott-winning poet Joyce Sidman’s incredible This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, writes to her sister Cassie:

The Black Spot

That black spot on your palm.
It never goes away.
So long ago
I stabbed you with a pencil.
Part of the lead, there,
still inside you.
And inside me, too,
something small and black.
Hidden away.
I don’t know what to call it,
the nugget of darkness,
that made me stab you.
It never goes away.
Both marks, still there.
Small black

In a response poem, Cassie says only:

Roses are red
violets are blue,
I’m still really
pissed off at you.

So sisterhood is powerful, in both good and bad ways. I’m not sure what I can do not to play favorites. I try to spend solo time with each of them. I try not to play them off against each other. I keep chanting, “Love is not a pie.”

I can see that the relationship my daughters have is a million times more intense than the one my brother and I had. My brother and I didn’t have much in common. Growing up, we didn’t have much to say to each other. Josie and Maxie, on the other hand, love and hate each other with fierce devotion. They play Legos together for hours. Josie reads to Maxie. Maxie comes home from school with dozens of drawings of Josie. They bring each other goodie bags from parties. And they fight like rabid animals. And they insist I love the other one more.

I can take heart from a recent study showing that people with sisters grow up to be better at coping with setbacks, more highly motivated, more optimistic, and more social than people with only brothers. Researchers theorize that sisters talk a lot (God knows this is true in my house), and open emotional expression is good for one’s mental health. Boys, on the other hand, discourage such verbal sharing.

When it comes to raising our progeny, we parents are bound to screw up sometimes. It’s a given. And it’s scant consolation that we’re bound to do better than our biblical forebears. We just have to make sure our kids understand that after we’re gone, they’ll have each other.

Today, Maxie’s crib is gone. We have bunkbeds. When they arrived, Maxie cried bitterly because Josie got the top bunk. But Josie has never spent a single night in it. After storytime, she climbs down into Maxie’s bed. I often find them intertwined, like puppies, in their sleep.

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Another superb column. Marjorie, your talent is not a pie.

I don’t get it–why knock the Torah? What does the author gain besides
a sexy headline?
Jewish tradition never claims that the Biblical families are perfect emulatable models; indeed one of the main lessons of the Torah is how NOT to raise families. The point that is made re: favoratism is echoed over and over again both in the text and by the commentaries. One outstanding example: for taking his older brother’s birthright, Yaakov spends his whole life trying to make amends.
Attacking the Torah for this is just a cheap shot.
Jonathan Porath

Pesele says:

Actually, the Torah is an interesting place to look for both sibling and parental relationships. When looked at as one arc, Bereshit/Genesis takes us from lack of self-mastery on the part of one sibling leading to the violent death of another (Cain/Abel) to reconciliation between siblings (the Joseph saga). Looked at this way, there is growth in the relationships, something that often happens as siblings grow. And, while I won’t dwell on the other books, the relationship between Moses and Aaron, in particular, but Miriam as well, could be used as a model.

Congrats on an excellent article — I wrote an entire PAPER about this in college, in a religion class, to see if our Biblical role models could shed some light on my own perplexing sibling relationships, “stuck in the middle” with 2 brothers (answer: not really…)

Sandee says:

Loved the article,but when I got to the poem I realized that I am not alone! When I was about 8 years-old my younger sister stabbed BOTH my knees with pencils. We didn’t talk about it in later years. However, when I displayed my damaged knee caps to her children, she had a fit! Why was I exposing them to something she had done so long ago. “Why not,” said I. “You’re guilty!” The marks still remain, though they were put there over 60 years ago, and my adult sons still tease my sister about how she scarred their mother for life.

Sibling relationships are tough. My two girls, 2.5 years apart, adore each other and drive each other nuts as well. The younger is terribly jealous of the older – since she is second in birth order, for all else she cries “I don’t want to be second!” The older is irritated by the younger’s desire to participate in everything she does, particularly since the younger’s desire is not commensurate with her ability.

I don’t think there is much parents can do to ensure kids get along – I think most of it is personality. Either they jibe or they don’t. Of course, playing favorites is a sure way to encourage rivalry but not playing favorites, as you’ve seen, doesn’t discourage it much.

This is a fascinating topic, one of which I have grappled with nearly my entire life since I’m the eldest of four sisters. I do think there’s something to be said about liking one child more than another. It may not be a pretty statement, but it’s true. In fact, I wrote about that very topic not long ago:

For me, the issue I’ve struggled with has more to do with having different expectations for one chlid than another, or financially supporting one child but not the other. It’s tough being one of four, and those four being all girls. Maybe that’s why I’m opting for only one!

Katie says:

Beautiful piece, Marjorie. This is an endlessly fascinating topic for me. I was always sure I was my parents’ favorite; how could they possibly love my predictable, earnest, pedestrian brother as much as dynamic, funny ME?! But now with my own two children — one predictable and earnest, one dynamic and frustrating — I realize how massive parental love is, how all-encompassing it is. I feel different connections with each child but my passion for both of them astounds me. I do need to work harder to demonstrate to my son that his calmer, less entertaining personality is just as lovable as his sister’s. (I also need to be careful not to make it appear that I love him *because* of his calmer, do-gooder status!)
Anyway, I’m grateful for your writing on this powerful subject. Thank you as always.

Cherie says:

When ever my oldest daughter insists she is my favorite, I always reply that I have loved her LONGER! End of subject.

Deborah says:

From a mother of three boys, here is my way of handling this issue: What is the right answer to “Which one of us do you love more, Mom?” “The one who is asking!”

I know we are supposed to avoid sarcasm with young children, but whenever one of my daughters whines “why did you let (other sister) do (insert complaint of unfairness here)” I always reply with a smile “because I love her better.” which cracks them up, demonstrating that even they know that it’s impossibly for me to love one more than another.

J Carpenter says:

Must agree with Pesele on this one: the Joseph story runs the full gamut, from the favored one (but recall the story of Rebekah, who favors Jacob; Sarah, who favors Isaac; Joseph and Benjamin, sons of the favored wife Rachel . . . )to the slave to the ascendent position of power over Egypt as well as over his brothers—but Joseph’s trick with the silver cup allowed his brothers’ redemption, Judah offering his own life for his brother Benjamin . . . .
Take the full story, not just episodes; take the full family stories, not just childhood struggles. I have never felt closer to my siblings than the last decade, as we have seen our own children grow and our parents decline.

I’ve said that least 247293 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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The Torah is full of stories of sibling rivalry, from Cain and Abel to Joseph and his brothers. But is the Bible an accurate representation of reality, or overstating the case?

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