Asa mother, I would never admit that I have a favorite child. That’s because I absolutely do have a favorite, but that designation is a continually shifting spot in my heart. For example, at the moment, my middle kiddo is my favorite because he’s sitting quietly and reading a book while I work. My least favorite child right now? Easy, that would be my youngest, who is currently shrieking like a damn sea witch.
Most parents will tell you that they don’t have a favorite child. The truth is, though, that most parents have a child at any given time who is causing the least amount of resistance and is, therefore, more comfortable to be around. Kids are loud and wild and can be extraordinarily frustrating to be around.
But science thinks that no matter what parents say, they genuinely do have a favorite child. And what’s more, kids seldom know who the favorite is; in fact, when asked who they think the favorite child is, they often guess wrong.
In a 2006 study that rotates in and out of the public eye, researchers looked closely at 384 families that had siblings who were within four years of age difference from one another. It turns out that 74% of mothers and 70% of fathers reported preferential treatment toward one child over another.
But who is the favorite kid? That depends on who you ask. The study revealed that perceived preferential treatment mostly affected younger siblings’ sense of self-worth. Firstborns, however, reported feeling pretty darn secure that they were the favorites even if they weren’t.
“The very large majority of both mothers and fathers, when asked directly, are willing to say that there is a child that they are closer to, prefer to confide in, prefer as a caregiver, have more conflict with and have more pride in,” J. Jill Suitor, who is a professor of sociology at Purdue University told TODAY. “Most of the time, children’s perceptions are wrong.”
Although Suitor was not an author on the 2006 study, she was the principal investigator of the 20-year, longitudinal Within-Family Differences Study that sought to understand “within-family differences in parent-adult child relations.”
Suitor and her team assumed that parents would waffle a bit on the question of having a favorite child. But what actually happened was that parents were rather forthcoming about which child they preferred. Curiously, though, the reasons for preferential treatment, particularly for adult children, have everything to do with sharing values than outcomes of success like making money or marrying and having babies.
This could help explain why adult children were wrong 60% of the time when asked who they thought mom and dad loved more.
“If mothers had a serious illness, injury or chronic care need, and received care from a child whom they had not identified as their preferred caregiver, their psychological well-being was substantially lower than of they received care from preferred caregivers. Now, put this together with the fact that most adult children have very inaccurate perceptions of their mother’s preferences, and you can see where the risk for mismatches is high,” Suitor told the Purdue University website.
The most significant impact of all, though, maybe the high risk of misunderstandings within families. If one child feels that their parent prefers a sibling, it can lead to emotional and psychological distress and erode relationships.
Perhaps parents should stick to that age-old canned response, “I love all of my children equally.” But also, keep an eye toward treating each child equally. As a mother of three kids, I absolutely do not want any of my kids to feel that one or both of their siblings overshadow them when it comes to my love.
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