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Adolescent Freedom and the Ill Effects of Social Favoritism

Beware preferential treatment that favors one group and disfavors others.

Key points

  • Social favoritism is a system of preferential treatment that advantages the majority and disadvantages the minority.
  • Four forces of social favoritism are: prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and complicity.
  • One form of favoritism, sexism, can adversely affect a growing daughter.
  • Parents can help by addressing the four forces head on.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

“It’s so unfair! They get physical conditioning help that we don’t!” The high school junior was complaining how the single weight room had been taken over by male athletes, "jocks" who created a hostile place for female athletes like her who wanted to strength train too. They were made to feel unwelcome there: “Who wants to work out where you’re being made fun of?”

Thus the young woman came to this unhappy conclusion: “In athletics, guys get taken more seriously here, their sports are more highly valued, and they’re better supported than girls.”

What’s going on? The answer can be a variation of social favoritism.

Social Favoritism

Social favoritism is preferential treatment that unfairly gives more positive value, assistance, and opportunity to those in majority power who possess some favored characteristic and denies equal value, assistance, and opportunity to those in the contrasting minority who do not. It puts one group up by keeping another group down, and can be socially oppressive this way.

Both the majority and the minority are in danger of becoming dehumanized by this inequity because harmful lessons can be learned on both sides. For example: The majority might come to believe they are better than others—entitled to preferential treatment and superior standing—and the minority might come to believe they are not as good as others—resigned to subordinate treatment and inferior standing. Such favoritism can be formative because social freedom and self-definition are at stake.


Many are the "isms" that can advantage some majority and disadvantage some minority where there is a contrasting difference between them. As an example in this discussion, consider sexism, where social favoritism is based on a binary view of sexual gender—male is favored, female is disfavored.

In this case, your teenager’s growing freedom can be unfairly limited if she is a girl. So parents are well-advised to pay attention to the social treatment their growing daughter receives. Not only can she be placed at an unfair disadvantage; she can also be endangered.

How might parents want to respond to their teenage daughter, should this unhappy form of social favoritism come her way? To empower, support, and protect her as best they can, it’s important to understand four basic ways that social favoritism, in this case as sexism, can harm.

How Social Favoritism Harms

Prejudice can lower self-worth. “Women are not as capable and important as men.” Feeling put down by this comparison, at worst your daughter can believe she is inadequate and inferior, "less than" for being female. The power of prejudice can be the poison of self-rejection.

Discrimination can obstruct mobility. “Men are better suited for this kind of work than women.” Denied an equal chance, at worst your daughter can have to accept reduced choices for advancement. The power of discrimination can be the limitation of opportunity.

Harassment can create a loss of personal safety. “If they know what’s good for them, women better do what men say.” At worst, exposed to male threats and acts of violence, your daughter can feel endangered. The power of harassment can be the exploitation of fear.

Complicity can reduce social oversight. “People who know about what’s happening just look the other way.” At worst, when sexual inequity and injury are ignored, your daughter can feel not publically supported. The power of complicity can be silent consent to wrongdoing.

What Parents Might Say

So: should any of these sexist mistreatments come their daughter’s way, what might parents say?

About Prejudice: “That kind of attitude and expression communicates nothing wrong about you, but exposes the ignorance or ill-will of the speaker.”

About Discrimination: “To be rejected or excluded because you are a woman violates your equal rights, and you can make that case if you so choose.”

About Harassment: “To be sexually threatened or harmed is a time to get help and take steps to stop the mistreatment and the perpetrator.”

About Complicity: “Should any of these mistreatments happen to you, and those who know act like they don’t; this is a time to demand attention.”

Most important, should your adolescent fall prey to any of the four forms of social favoritism be it based on sex, sexuality, race, disability, culture, religion, native language, nationality, economic background, or any other characteristic, let the young person know that you want to be told in order to support the adolescent during a hurtful time: “You are not alone, we know it can be scary to speak up, and we want to help in any way we can.”

Denying Social Favoritism

To the parent who disbelieves in social favoritism in general, or in sexism in particular, despite what her or his daughter reports, ask that mother or father to look at the data. For example: “How come, after over two hundred years, the United States has never had the benefit of a female president?” To young women like their daughter, the social favoritism message has been historically clear: “If you’re female, you can’t aspire to fill the highest public office in this land.”

Addressing the Issue

I believe it’s wise for parents to respect any reports from their growing teenager (daughter or son) of prejudice, discrimination, harassment, and complicity that puts the young person down, keeps them out, threatens their wellbeing, or when such mistreatment is publicly known but is socially ignored. Why attend to what they are told?

Because when it comes to sexism, racism, or any other form of social favoritism that advantages similarity to the dominant majority and penalizes the minority for being different, such inequitable treatment of their adolescent can be demeaning, unfair, endangering, and isolating, so can do a lot of harm.