Mommy Loved Me More

The impact of parental favoritism.

Posted Jul 17, 2018

Research on parental favoritism has explored both the perceived as well as real preferences parents have toward their children. Various studies have been conducted where parents and adolescent or adult children were asked whether their parent treated one, or more than one child preferentially in comparison to the other children.

We may want to believe that parents love and treat their children equally; however, this is not always the case. Often, a parent may favor one child over the others, which can have a lasting effect for the parent, child, and siblings.

Parental favoritism usually begins early in a child’s development and typically lasts through adulthood. Research has found that the variables which influence favoritism include:

It has been suggested that birth order influences favoritism because of a parent’s innate survival instinct. Evolutionarily speaking, parents may invest greatly in the survival of a first born not only in the hope of the child living long enough to perpetuate the genetic line, but also to take care of an aging parent (Salmon, 2003). Therefore, more resources may be given to the first born than to the other children. The first born also represents the first child and one to whom most attention will be paid because, as of yet, there are no other competing children. On the other hand, last born children can also be favored; particularly, among older aged parents. As with the first born, last born children may be the only children living with the parents and thus have no younger aged competing rivals. Consequently, of all the siblings, middle born children tend to be the ones who receive the least amount of support and attention from parents, and consequently may not be very interested in family connections. 

With respect to gender, the research offers several findings. The first is that mothers tend to favor their first born son and fathers tend to favor their last born daughter (again illustrating the middle born child being non-favored). Although these perceptions of favoritism exist, the relationship that mothers have with their daughters is much closer than that with their sons. Explanations for this include the similarity that females have to one another, not only in relation to their gender, but also to their emotional sensitivity (Suitor, Sechrist, Steinhour, & Pillemer, 2006).

Similarity in emotional sensitivity is not the only characterological trait that influences parental favoritism. Sharing values and interests are other variables that influence closeness. Another factor may be whether a child has a physical or psychological illness, or if the child has been the victim of a crime. Such situations call for greater parental involvement for such a child over the other children who are not perceived to be as “vulnerable.”

The consequences of being favored children results in several positive outcomes for them. They may have a better sense of well-being, they receive more resources (interpersonal and material) than their siblings, and they are given more autonomy—all of which many encourage the development of maturity and responsibility. 

Children, who are or believe they are non-favored, may develop depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, and problematic sibling relationships. However, there are potential ramifications for the favored child as well.

Understandably, parental favoritism of one child over her or his siblings can have a significant impact. Since Biblical times, siblings’ jealousy regarding their parent’s favored child has resulted in few positive outcomes. The lack of real or perceived treatment equity affects all the children, including the favored one. Often, the repercussions may have developmental consequences, some more serious than others, that can extend into adulthood (Suitor et al., 2009).

  • As children, siblings feel more hostility to one another regardless of who is favored.
  • As the children age, their sibling relationships may suffer to where they don’t feel close to one another and engage in greater conflict. 
  • In adulthood, the siblings may attempt to avoid conflict but there remains a lasting impact based on their recollections from when they were children.

Do children play any role in garnering the claim to “parental favorite”? Sibling rivalry is firmly related to the quest for favored status and the need to outshine one’s siblings. Perhaps the behavior derives from the “survival of the fittest” to receive the majority of “limited resources”—including, at minimum, a parent’s attention.

There are many parents who strive to treat their children equally, and yet they still have one whom they perceive as their favorite. Children too may love each parent, but still have a favorite. The reality is that we are all individuals with a different set of needs, capabilities, likes and dislikes. Being born into the most well-adjusted and loving family does not guarantee that there will be no friction, competition, or always an equal distribution of attention paid to one another.

We all need to feel special and loved by our parents for the unique individuals we are. Compatibility between child and parent may make such efforts easy to perform; however, the true demonstration of a parent's love and commitment is to do so when it is not so easy.

References

Salmon, C. (2003). Birth order and relationships: Family, friends, and sexual partners. Human Nature, 14, 73-88. DOI: 10.1007/s12110-003-1017x

Suitor, J. J., Sechrist, J., Steinhour, M., & Pillemer, K. (2006). “I’m sure she chose me?” Accuracy of children’s reports of mothers’ favoritism in later life families. Family Relations, 55, 526-538. DOI:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2006.00423x

Suitor, J. J., Sechrist, J., Plikuhn, M., Pardo, S. T., Gilligan, M., & Pillemer, K. (2009). The role of perceived maternal favoritism in sibling relationships in midlife. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 1026-1038. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00650.x

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