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The Favorite Child

You’re mom’s favorite!” How many times did your children throw that taunt at each other?  How many times were they right that you secretly harbored a favorite?   Maybe it was the “easy” child who took naps and did well in school and survived the teenage years relatively unscathed while another child careened from one difficulty to another.

Now that the children are adults they may not shout those words anymore, but the perception—and impact– of perceived favoritism remains, according to a new study:

 “Whether mom’s golden child or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child over others are more likely to show depressive symptoms as middle-aged adults.”

The study surveyed 275 mothers and adult children and found that favoritism can impact the psychological well-being of adults, even those who have been living on their own for years.  Previous research indicated that children and teens can suffer behavior problems as a result of parental favoritism.

The study’s authors, Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer and Purdue University sociologist Jill Suitor, have examined family issues related to siblings for more than two decades.

Mothering21 looked at some of the research that Prof. Suitor and her colleagues conducted and talked to her one recent morning at length about her work.  The favorite child has long been scrutinized, as Prof. Suitor wrote in the introduction to one of her studies:

“Literature and history abound with stories of parental favoritism, beginning with the Biblical story of Israel favoring his last-born son Joseph and continuing to Pat Conroy’s novel Beach Music. In the early 20th century, both Sigmund Freud, who was his mother’s favorite, and Alfred Adler, who was not, noted the potential consequences of such favoritism for children’s development.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the subject became to be the topic of  academic study. Since then the research has come to a firm conclusion.  Prof. Suitor told us:

“Favoritism seems to be a really bad thing. We know that from 20 years of research on children.  It’s bad whether you are the favorite child or perceive there’s a favorite child.  The favored child often does not get along with siblings.”

Before we look at the most recent study, we discussed with Prof. Suitor some of the previous research on favorite children.  What the studies have found:

Parents are more likely to favor:

  • daughters
  • children who share their values
  • children who lead normal lives
  • children who have provided parents with support
  • children who are geographically close
  • last-borns, followed by first-borns

Does favoring one child make you a “bad” mother?  Not so, says Prof.  Suitor pointing out that favoritism is most often determined not by mother but rather by the behavior of the children.  The research has shown that if all the adult children are leading similar lives then there tends to be less favoritism.  On the other hand, says Prof. Suitor, “If one kid is going to Yale Law School, and the other kid is facing a prison term then it’s obvious which one is preferred.” 

When adult children have problems brought on by their own misdeeds or behavior, then they do tend to be less favored. However mothers often say they are closest to children who “needed them more” because of  a mental or health issues not of their own doing.

 Before you start feeling guilty about favoring one child over the other, Prof. Suitor has some reassuring advice:

 “Whether kids feel really loved is more important than the perception that mom favors a particular child.”

 Next week:  Favoritism from the adult children’s perspective

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