Admit It: You Have a Favorite Child

5 years ago

My 7-year-old read the cover of our copy of Time magazine to me: "Why Mom Liked You Best*. The Science of Favoritism (*of course she would never admit it)."

The cover features three blonde young children, a boy and two girls. Just like our family. Favorite girl has a big piece of cake with an even bigger smile on her face, while non-favored younger children have small pieces and rather grumpy faces.

Of course it was the cake in the picture that interested my kids the most. Each of them has complained at one stage or another than so-and-so gets more, or doesn't get reprimanded like they do or gets better "stuff" in general.

The good thing is that each one has complained about the other, evidence that we have equally failed each child!

The Time magazine article insists that all parents really do have a favorite, even if it's subconscious. It's the natural order of things, just like in the animal kingdom.

And just like in the animal kingdom, it seems that the oldest child tends to be the favored one. Catherine Conger of the University of California, Davis concluded in her well-known study about favoritism that 65 percent of moms and 70 percent of dads do outwardly show favoritism to one child and it's usually the oldest.

Older children often grow up to be the tallest and/or strongest of the kids, with higher IQs (by about three points). It's believed that these numbers are actually low due to parents' awareness of being watched by researchers as they interact with their children during studies on favoritism.

The kid good at sports or the one who won the Spelling Bee or is a likely future Rhodes Scholar brings not only pride to the family, but the family name. It's hard not to have a special twinkle in the eye of a parent whose kid might play ball for a Big 10 university and it's certainly more fun to talk about him that Average Annie who plods along steadily with no lows - but no highs.

In animal studies, mothers prefer larger eggs, larger babies and babies born first (since they tend to be larger).  They will throw small eggs or the runt of a litter out of the nest/family home in order to focus on the healthier, older children since younger ones are considered "spares, not heirs".

Another reason researchers believe the oldest is often favored may involve the care, attention and expense invested in the first child. Parents focus on the eldest to make sure their investment pays off.

Younger siblings get the hand-me-downs and their milestones aren't as celebrated -- it's all been done before.  The oldest child's baby and toddlerhoods are well-documented with thousands of photos, videos and mementos.

The last child  is often lucky to have a few dozen baby pictures and Mom and Dad's memories of their milestones are a lot fuzzier than those of the first child. Researchers believe too much fuss on the oldest can make a first child arrogant and self-entitled. Of course, other opinions say the opposite.   Paradoxically, the youngest child may also get a little extra love and attention. Time Magazine cites a study on a bird called the coot. 

Instead of the mother focusing on the biggest or oldest, she spreads her love around and ensures the weakest and smallest get enough care so that they can grow to match the size and strength of their siblings.

This may be why the "baby of the family" in humans gets fussed over and coddled more than others.  In order to maintain their status, they learn how to charm and woo the family -- and everyone else in their world.

And what about that most stereotyped of sibling: the middle child? The one caught in the mid-section of the family tree -- the one that's sandwiched in between the golden oldest child and the overprotected smallest one.  

Middle children sometimes feel they are the forgotten ones: too average and a bit beige colored, fading into the background.  Especially if they are in a boy-boy-girl or girl-girl-boy birth order, they don't stand out much.

They are the same as (but feel a little less than) the first same-sex child and then along comes the baby -- of a new gender who adds new blood and a whole different interest to the brood based on cultural expectations of his or her particular sex. 

Research has seen these middle children become dare-devils and attention-seekers. Anything to stand out from the crowd. While the eldest child is accepting her award for Valedictorian on the school's front lawn -- as the baby of the house stands between her parents --  middle child might be bungee jumping off the school's bell tower, all while holding a political sign.

So does favoritism damage the other kids and leave the favored child with an over-inflated sense of ego? Experts say the damage during childhood can be harsh but may diminish somewhat in adulthood as each sibling finds his or her own place in the world.

But as children, favoritism can cause infighting among the siblings, anger at the favorite, and guilt of the favorite for having that status. Non-favored children wonder what they did to lose the extra love that Mom and Dad pour on the favorite.

Non-favored children can feel lonely and unwanted as they watch the favorite bask in all the glory. And these old feelings can resurface during troublesome times in adulthood -- sometimes when it comes to the care of aging parents (and non-favored child may feel less inclined) or during adult sibling arguments.

One more conclusion: A parent will never admit to having a favorite.

Right to the end, they will deny that one child was more liked over another, even if it was patently obvious to the world. Perhaps they even deny it to themselves although most research points to be parent knowing exactly who their golden child is.

Anyone wanting 'fess up to having a favorite kid?!



Sources: Time Magazine. Why Mom Liked You Best*. The Science of Favoritism (*of course she would never admit it). Pages 44-50. October 2, 2011 issue.

Shebloski, B., Conger, K. J., & Widaman, K. (2005). Reciprocal links among differential parenting, perceived partiality, and self-worth: A three-wave longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology.

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