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Are you the favorite child? The science of favoritism

We are frequently asked why we spend our professional careers studying favoritism, after all, parents don’t really have favorites. Or do they? A woman recently approached us after a lecture we gave and told us about caring for her aging mother. Her story captures the importance of this issue. She visited her mother daily in the final year of her mother’s life to feed, bathe, and care for her. She had always felt that her sister was the favorite child, and she hoped this experience would change her status as the disfavored daughter. The hope went unrealized. On the day her mother died, she pulled the caregiving daughter’s face close to her own and whispered in her ear, “You know, I never really did like you very much and I still don’t.” Even a decade after the mother’s death, the two sisters have a very tense relationship, and the disfavored daughter continues to feel distressed about the relationship she had with her mother.

Popular and academic interest in favoritism and disfavoritism is not new. In the early 20th century Alfred Adler, a prominent psychotherapist who was not his mother’s favorite child, and Sigmund Freud, another prominent psychotherapist, who was his mother’s favorite, wrote about how parents’ favoritism could damage children emotionally and socially. Pop-psychology focused on the birth order aspect of these, and many people eventually came to believe that first-borns tend to be leaders, middle-born siblings are forgotten, and last-borns tend to be spoiled and rebellious. Many who believe in “birth-order determinism” implicitly believe favoritism plays a role in shaping our personalities. The science suggests, however, that it is less about personality and more about emotions, relationships, and mental health, and that it matters for adults too.

Two articles published this month show that parental favoritism and disfavoritism in adulthood are common and have important consequences across generations. These studies are based on two major data sets that have examined within-family differences between parents and adult children across time. Each study provides meaningful and novel insights on dynamics around favoritism within families and emotional and mental health.

Sisters by langll. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Using data from the Within Family Differences Study (WFDS), Suitor and colleagues found that adults had a higher risk of depression if their mothers saw them as their greatest source of disappointment. Even as adults, it is hard for children to feel like they can never win their mothers’ approval, which may heighten their risk of depression. The effect was found to be stronger in Black families, who may place greater importance on their mothers’ feelings than do their White counterparts.

The potential damage to mental health also could extend across generations. Using data from the Family Exchanges Study (FES), Jensen and colleagues focused on how favoritism experienced as siblings may be linked to how parents treat their own children. They found that both men and women were more likely to have a favorite child if their own fathers had favorites. Some men, however, tried to be more equitable with their own children, especially if they felt there was favoritism with their siblings regarding finances.

Many American families will gather in the coming months to celebrate a variety of holidays. For those like the caregiving daughter who had less of her mother’s love, it will be a reminder of a disfavored status. The science suggests that those individuals will be at greater risk for depression, and that they are more likely to pass on those patterns of favoritism to their own children, but this does not have to be a story with a sad ending. There are three main takeaways from these studies on favoritism to keep in mind, especially this time of year.

  1. First, although many adults repeat the patterns of favoritism they experienced with their siblings, many others change. If you felt like your parents played favorites, you can use that awareness to treat your own children more equitably.
  2. Second, recognize that treating children fairly doesn’t mean treating them the same. Whether children or adults, siblings are different people with different needs. The science suggests that siblings recognize the need for differences in treatment, but they want it to be fair.
  3. Lastly, other work using the WFDS suggests that adults who believe their sibling is the favorite are usually wrong. So if you find yourself frustrated with a sibling that you believe is the favorite, remember that there is a good chance that the favorite child just might be you.

Featured image by Ben White. CC0 Public domain via stocksnap.

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