Family systems says being the favored child is the worst position to have in a family. I only understood it theoretically, and through client stories, until lately, as I have watched the effect of it on my youngest grandson. The theory is: a favored position gives you way too much attention, too much pressure, and too much power. It makes you insecure because children can’t handle that much power–they aren’t capable, besides the fallout of making siblings resentful.
As I have shared here, I have lived how hard it is to be a step-parent: to be fair, to not express more affection to your own, to not take their side in everything; and I can’t imagine how much harder it would be when your own is the youngest! But I see the effects on both the favored one, and the older three. And it makes me sad. I love all of them, but the dynamics make me lean toward the older three.
It appears the favored gets all the affectionate words and gestures; to him it computes as power. He can do things, like walking around on the built-in bench during dinner, while his father seems not to notice. If the others even accidentally kick it while eating, a swift reprimand follows. They see the difference and it hurts, even while they try not to let it.
They love and admire their step-dad, more than I have ever seen, and I am afraid his favoritism, even while they try to understand, is going to cause them to disrespect him, and resent the little one–whom they now all love. In one sense they are getting the best fathering, but I see in their eyes the longing for the affection he gives the youngest. But what is the father to do? It’s the effect of bonding–it’s natural. Yet he does seem oblivious to the bad effects of it.
The weight of all this attention, without the boundaries, is ruining the three-year-old, and will make him into someone none of them like or respect. He is insecure and insolent, expecting to get his way, and throwing a fit when he doesn’t. His father can’t seem to say “No” to him. He tries to make it something he wants to do or at least needs to do, “mystification” is what it’s called. (More on that next time.) But the three-year-old easily says, “No” to him! And it’s not his fault. It’s the way he thinks life works. His dad bends to his will. How much he needs that simple “No” that stays solid and doesn’t change, every single day! Maybe twice a day.
I had just written the book on Jacob and Joseph when I began to see this, and it was certainly true in Joseph’s case but with enough variation that it’s easy to downplay. Obviously his brothers hated him because their father favored him. And his father, while he didn’t try to hide it, evidently was affectionate with all of them. Also, the brothers had four mothers! And they knew it was because his mother was favored.
It wasn’t until after she died that the favoritism became ugly. Joseph tells their father an awful thing some of them had done (we aren’t told what) and gets them in trouble. And after that it is on! They hate him. He seems oblivious to their feelings, or at least the extent of them, and treats them as brothers. His father doesn’t seem to realize the depth of their hatred either, or what they are capable of–which he had certainly experienced at Shechem.
Why didn’t all the favor ruin Joseph? Two huge variables: Suffering, and the stories of his father’s faith. The suffering of exclusion was made tolerable because he was so close to his father and spent hours talking with him, especially in the suffering of losing his mother. (Jacob told Joseph all the stories of his own mistakes and his relationship with God. Jacob had run from home because of what he did, and God had forgiven him and gone with him. He promised to be God’s man and God blessed him with his friendship, even though he suffered greatly at the scheming of the dark side.)
Joseph’s suffering exponentially increased a year after losing his mother when his brothers sold him into slavery! He was 17 and from that crucible of pain came a man who determined to be God’s man, no matter what! God honored that choice and made him a huge success–after more suffering. It’s one of my favorite historical stories (episode three of Love’s Playbook) and is a great example of family systems. It was Joseph’s choice and the sharing of his father’s faith stories that made the difference. Joseph’s suffering helped him see things clearly. But would that have happened without the sharing of his father’s faith and stories?
So what can my son-in-law do? He’s a good man, and can be an awesome father to all of them. I believe it. Could he spread the affection around? (I didn’t. I just shut down, expressing little to all of them. It was easier because they criticized me. I tried hard to be fair. I didn’t know until recently that my daughter suffered from it. I thought she got enough. They all suffered.)
Being a good step-parent takes a lot of awareness and presence and intentionality. It takes inviting dialogue and choosing. It takes time and listening and not discounting the feelings of the others. It takes being secure in yourself and open to others. It takes “liking” your step-children.
It’s a hard job, but it’s worth it. Our legacy is left in the characters of our children. It is the most important thing we do! And I don’t think You can do it without God. It was the sharing of Jacob’s stories of faith in God, and how it had helped him, that helped Joseph make good decisions and brought him through extreme suffering. We are all broken. We are going to make mistakes in parenting. Our love is broken, but it can still have good effects on our children.