In a recent cover story in Time magazine, Jeffrey Kluger argued that parental favouritism is universal. Kluger, a senior editor and writer at Time, is also the author of The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us, and he believes that, “All parents, regardless of what they say, do have a favourite child.” Clearly, such statements generate strong reactions for parents, many of whom make an effort to ensure that their children are treated equally. But is parental favouritism as widespread as Kluger believes? And if it is, what are the implications for the favoured (and less favoured) kids?
Jill Suitor reviewed psychological research on parental favouritism and “parental differential treatment” in a 2008 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. She and her colleagues reported that one-third to two-thirds of parents (slightly less than ALL parents) favour one child over another in terms of “closeness, support, and control”. Stress appears to affect whether parents will treat their children differently; if marital problems occur or if one of the children has serious health problems, parental favouritism is more likely. Birth order seems to play a role as well, particularly as parents get older; first- and last-born children may be favoured by their parents. Mothers have reported that they turn to their youngest adult child for emotional support and to their oldest for practical help. The children’s behaviour and personalities also affect their relationships with their parents. Aggressive children elicit more control and discipline from their parents, and kids who show positive feelings for their parents tend to be treated with more warmth and sensitivity.
What are the possible effects of parental favouritism when it occurs? Kids who are least favoured by their parents seem to have lower self-esteem, and higher rates of depression and behavioural problems. Most of the research reviewed by Suitor suggests that favouritism has negative implications for all siblings: their relationships with one another tend to be more hostile. As adults, both the less-favoured children and the highly-favoured children tended to have worse relationships with their parents than kids from families where siblings were treated more equally. Unquestionably, parental favouritism can have negative effects on families, but not every parent has a favourite child.
I was pleased to see evidence that parental favouritism isn’t as universal as Kluger believes – as some commenters on his article noted, parents often appreciate different things about each of their children. However, I think that Kluger’s work should be a reminder to parents who are concerned about their relationships with their kids. What can parents do to avoid or minimize the impact of parental favouritism?
- Spend some time: The best way for parents to improve their relationships with their kids is to spend some time together. Many psychologists, myself included, recommend “child-directed time” as a first step to address many difficulties between parents and their kids. Child-directed time refers to regularly scheduling time to engage in an activity of the child’s choosing. Playing with your child in an area of interest or strength increases the chance that you’ll find joy in being with him or her – which is extremely important in building (or repairing) your relationship. Scheduling some special time with each child can reduce the children’s perception of parental favouritism as well.
- Watch your language: Be alert to what you say – it can be easy for kids to pick up on even unintentional favouritism. Avoiding comparisons between siblings is important, in my opinion. I’ve spoken with many parents who avoid saying things like, “Look how well your sister can do this!” to prevent rivalry from developing. I talked about this with the parents of Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn from Courage My Love on the podcast; they made a conscious effort to prevent rivalry from developing between their kids. A focus on your kids’ individual strengths and talents might be better!
Faber recommends that if a child asks, “Who do you love most?” parents don’t respond, “I love you all equally.” Instead, answer: “You are my only Katie. In the whole world, no one has your thoughts, your feelings, your way of doing things. I am so lucky you were born to me.” To be loved for who you are is to be loved as much as anyone can be, Faber says.