Monday, September 26th, 2011
There is a buzz both online and in print about parental favoritism. Check out these observations from Katherine Bindley in a fascinating piece in the Huffington Post:
Dr. Ellen Libby, who wrote “The Favorite Child,”argued in a blog post on HuffPost that favoritism is alive and well in every family. Parenting.com even listed favoring a child as one of its “Top Ten Mom Confessions” last month, when 14 percent of respondents were willing to admit to it. And, Jeffrey Kluger, author of “The Sibling Effect,” told theWashington Post earlier this week that 99 percent of parents have favorites, and that the other 1 percent is lying.
Much of the interest in this topic stems from claims (NOT from me!) that it is natural – and even biologically hard-wired – for parents to like one child better than another, and that being either favored or not favored has lasting effects on development. So, for example, if you happen to be the favored child, you carry around a sense of entitlement for the rest of your life. And if you are not favored, you harbor anger and resentment and bring that into your dealings with the world, for the rest of your life.
What do I think? Well, I’ll offer some observations, and then pose a question for all you parents who have more than one child.
As a researcher who has studied sibling and families for about two decades, it is not that easy to find scientific evidence of favoritism. Why? Because, at least in observational studies, the majority of parents don’t really act all that different with their children. In most cases the differences are more subtle and what you would expect since siblings frequently have different personalities, can many times be different genders, and are different ages. In our longitudinal studies, we get to see families over periods of time – sometimes across decades. So we get to observe, for example, how a parent may be much more attentive to their 2-year-old as compared to their 5-year-old (because a 2-year-old requires more attention) – but that this does not necessarily remain steady when the kids are 5 and 8.
Sure, there are outliers, but these are typically situations in which there is a lot of conflict between a parent and one child. A parent might respond differently to an easy-going child than their more demanding sibling – but such a difference doesn’t imply favoritism. Let me give a concrete example. Once I was flying to a child development conference, and a guy sitting next to me noticed the child development book I was reading. For the next 45 minutes, we had an engaging conversation about his two daughters – his 6-year-old “angel” (his word) and his 4-year-old “devil” (his word). He told me how hard the “devil” could be to deal with – and how she ended up “running the family” (his words) to always get her way. So was the “angel” the favored child? Well, he certainly found the “angel” easier to deal with. But then again, all his attention was focused on the “devil” who always got what she wanted – and he spent about 44 of the 45 minutes talking about the “devil.” So favoritism may be a slippery concept.
The point here is differences do not necessarily imply favoritism. And if you ask children and adolescents (like we do in our research studies), they are all very capable of not only telling you about the differences, but also how they are not favored! Even identical twins – twins who share the same genetic make-up – describe differential treatment and getting the short end of the stick. Why? If you have more than one child, you know very well that you cannot attend equally to each child every second of the day. So in some sense, siblings are always reacting to the moments in which they are not getting attention or feeling left out. But in the majority of cases this is not an overwhelming influence on their daily lives – it’s just a reality of living in a family and actually prepares them for the real world.
Now for the question. I get that there are some parents who overtly favor one child over another. But I think these cases are pretty rare – they are the exception rather than the rule. So outside of the normative differences you experience raising more than one child – and acknowledging that one of your kids might be easier to deal with, or you might identify (for better or worse) with one child versus another, or a given age difference at certain periods of time might skew your attention toward one child (say when one sibling is a baby, or one sibling turns into a teen) – tell me, do you really have a favorite child?