Parents don’t have favorites, but I suspect that children often do. Perhaps this isn’t always deliberate. It could simply be an expression of sympathy (to be discussed shortly). But in any case, parental favoritism does appear to exist, and it usually sides with the mother (sorry, dads).
My own household is the perfect model of democracy (and by “democracy,” I mean a loose interpretation of the unofficial Navy motto, “We’re defending democracy, not practicing it”). For “voting” purposes — which in this case means “which parent do we like best?” — our odd number of children comes in handy. In two-children families, especially where one child is a boy and the other is a girl, the battle lines, if you will, are easily marked. The girl sides with the mother, and the boy goes to his dad. Unless there is a case of “Daddy’s Little Girl”-“Momma’s Boy,” in which case the pattern is reversed. In the Smiley household, however, where there are three boys and one mom and dad, trends are readily observed by surveillance of the majority.
For instance, when the five of us end up at a distant location with two separate cars (this usually happens when the children and I meet Dustin at a restaurant after work), there is the dilemma of who will ride home with whom. Of course, there is only the pretense of a dilemma. We go through the motions, pretending that we don’t already know how the masses will “vote.” It makes Dustin feel better about things.
Dustin: “Anyone want to ride home with me?”
Owen, paying no attention to Dustin’s existence, let alone his offer, says, “When do we get in your car, Mom?”
Dustin, accepting, again, the knowledge that Owen votes along party lines, says, “Lindell, want to ride with me?”
Lindell, considering the offer, says, “Ummmm. Hmmmmm. Ah, no. I’ll go with Mom.”
Next, Dustin will look at Ford, our oldest, who will be torn between affection for me (or is it the DVD player in my car?) and sympathy for his father. Inevitably, Ford will say, “Sure, Dad; I’ll go with you,” before he looks over his shoulder at me with large, puppy-dog eyes. Ford is Dustin’s loyal voter. Dustin can always depend on Ford to ride with him.
Lindell is more fickle. His vote depends on what each parent’s car can offer. Does Dad have a juice box in there? Will Mom play a movie on the DVD player? If Dustin plays his cards right (offer a bag of M&Ms, perhaps), he can sometimes sway Lindell to his side.
Owen is steadfast. He cannot be budged from his support of and fondness for me. Even if Owen had not eaten for three days and Dustin had a cheeseburger in his car, and I did not, Owen still would ride with me.
Several Wednesdays ago, after the boys had their first day of school, Dustin invited them individually to join him on the couch to discuss their day. Ford eagerly accepted the offer because he loves nothing more than telling an attentive adult his every thought and feeling, but also because he is a loyal supporter of his dad.
When Dustin asked Owen to come talk to him, Owen pretended he didn’t hear. Dustin asked again, and Owen said, “Uh, not right now, Dad. Maybe later,” then walked away.
Just like his mother, Dustin said.
Lindell’s first inclination was to ignore Dustin, too. Then he realized that he had a lot to say. So he crawled up next to Dustin, and truly, Dustin looked surprised. Lindell is the swing voter. It’s hard to tell whom he will support.
When all the children had left and gone outside to play, Dustin said to me, “That’s pretty much the way it goes. Fifty percent of you value what I have to say, and 50 percent of you don’t.”
I questioned his math. Because actually, 50 percent of us don’t listen to him (let’s not attach any meaning like “value” to this) 50 percent of the time, and 25 percent of us do. Then there’s Lindell.
Dustin countered. He said something about Lindell and Owen staying 100 percent loyal to me with Ford acting as the swing voter when the tables are reversed. He mentioned Ford’s decisions often being made out of sympathy. And he said something along the lines of it being gender inequality and maybe due to the fact that he was on deployment for much of Ford’s and Owen’s babyhood.
He might have been fishing for reassurance. He probably wanted to probe deeper into this subject.
But honestly, I had already quit listening.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.