The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: When is family favoritism justified?


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

You’ve written about relatives who play favorites — that’s me! My older niece appreciated everything I ever gave her. Her younger sister felt entitled to everything and never, EVER said thank you — not even when I left work to pick her up for school when she missed her bus. When she turned 18 I stopped sending gifts, doing favors, everything.

Her older sister noticed and felt guilty. The younger sister simply cut me out of her life. I was only useful to her when I was giving her what she wanted. People may want to simply appreciate generous relatives.

Favorite-playing aunt

Of course. But there are also situations where the favoritism is capricious and cruel, sometimes even driven by the gift-giver’s psychological need to secure an ally and create a rift between the haves and the have-nots. Just ask siblings of a favorite who could do no wrong, and who was used to remind everyone else of their failures. In those cases, seeing the aunt as “generous” is a slap in the face to her designated have-nots.

To Aunt:

Please knock it off. The more sensitive and conscientious of the two sisters is the one you are hurting. Swallow your righteousness and give some love to the less pleasant sister (who may need it more for the fact that she’s able to ask for it less), if for no other reason than for the sake of the nicer sister who aches to solve this problem and has no power to do so.


Your “who may actually need it more” insight could be its own thread.

Sometimes people really are selfish and that may be the case here, but I also think it’s common for people to ascribe simple, negative motives where more subtle and complicated things might be happening.

For example, the accessible charm of the older sister may have bestowed on the younger sis an entire childhood of being overlooked, ignored, misread, incrementally black-sheeped. By the end of the process, black sheep are easy to write off — “She’s so entitled!” — but what about those points along the way when adults could have acted like adults and made the extra effort, possibly preempting a future where Black Sheep wants no part of family?

Certainly enough there for debate.

Re: Favorite-playing:

I have five young nieces and nephews. Some seem incredibly shy, others not. The 3-year-old won’t speak to me and hides behind my sister.

I’ve always tried not to force things and let my sister’s children come to me when we’re together. But now I’m having a hard time not favoring the youngest, who seems to like having me around. And I’m having an increasingly hard time not taking the 3-year-old’s action personally. Which seems incredibly dumb for an adult to do. Thoughts on a way to get right with this?

Anonymous 2

You’re already most of the way there, just by catching your bias (you’re being a little hard on yourself, even).

Best thing you can do is remind yourself that there are great people in both the introvert and extrovert camps; the former just need you to work a little harder to get to know them, because they don’t have an inner force driving them into your lap.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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