I have a friend who clearly favors one of her two young sons over the other. When the older one acts badly, she finds a million excuses to justify his behavior. But if the younger child does something the slightest bit wrong, she's incredibly harsh. I want to say something to her, yet I'm very uncomfortable at the thought of doing so. She's a dear friend, and I don't want to lose her friendship.
--Worried and Uncomfortable
Dear Worried and Uncomfortable,
Whenever someone has to decide whether to criticize another, I suggest that the person first ask, Am I looking forward to offering this criticism, or would I give anything not to?
If you're looking forward to offering criticism, don't. Your motives are probably insincere, and the other person will probably be defensive and disinclined to take your advice. It seems clear, however, that you're very unhappy to be in this situation and that your motives are sincere. And while I don't envy you, it also seems clear that the right thing to do is to speak with your friend.
Children need advocates. When the natural advocate, the child's parent, can't be trusted to be fair, the responsibility shifts to others. In speaking to your friend, your words are more likely to be effective if you make it clear that you care deeply for her. It's easier for a person to hear criticism and change behavior when the criticism is delivered lovingly. And she'll be more apt to try and act in a manner that will cause you to continue to respect and like her.
It's important that you mention specific instances in which you saw her treat one child unfairly. If you offer only a general critique, she'll find it easy to deny your accusation; the same applies if you cite only one instance. It's harder to deny the truth when it's presented with concrete examples.
If your friend reacts with ambivalence about the child she's treating unfairly, as I suspect she will, I'd suggest that you urge her to seek professional help. (You don't mention whether the woman is married, but there's a good chance that her feelings toward this child are tied to her feelings toward the child's father. In my experience, when a couple gets along harmoniously, and one of their children has a trait that reminds one parent of the other, that trait endears the child to the parent. But when a couple is in conflict, it's precisely those traits that remind the parent of his or her spouse (or ex-spouse) that most get on a parent's nerves.
Parents playing favorites among their children is a particularly troublesome issue. A young child is entitled to unconditional love, which is exactly what an unfavored child doesn't receive. Can you think of a greater disadvantage to go out into the world with than the feeling that a parent doesn't love you?
Along with inflicting psychological damage, parental favoritism can imperil the whole family structure. Thus, the Bible (Genesis 37) tells of how Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons and, like the woman you've written about, made no effort to disguise his favoritism. He freed Joseph from the chores his other sons were expected to perform and provided him with more beautiful clothing.
All of which caused Jacob's other sons to hate Joseph; in one of the Bible's most shocking episodes, they sold him into slavery. Indeed, this story reminds us that when parental love can't be taken for granted, sibling love also becomes endangered. For children can't grow up to love and appreciate one another if they feel that they're in competition for a finite supply of parental love.
I wish you good luck. I know you're uncomfortable with what you must do; I'm very uncomfortable in such circumstances as well. But what a wonderful opportunity to do something that can permanently improve a boy's life.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.