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'Mom Always Liked You More!' ... Could It Be True?

Though parents deny preferring any one child, a study finds favoritism not only exists but also strongly influences home dynamics.

July 17, 2001|DIANA K. SUGG | BALTIMORE SUN

They are the questions brothers and sisters have argued and anguished over since time began: Who is mom's favorite? Which of us does dad love most?

From the time they are little, boys and girls notice if their mother seems to pay more attention to their oldest sister. They remember that their father went to a brother's athletic events but not their own. They yearn to be loved the way they believe their favored sibling is loved.

Although parents dismiss the notion, experts say mothers and fathers often do have favorites. And like gender, prenatal care, birth order and other factors kids have no control over, favoritism matters. It helps shape whom a child becomes.

"It's an enormous influence," said Dr. Barbara Howard, developmental behavioral pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It's politically incorrect to say, 'That one's my favorite,' but if you ask parents, they'll say, 'Well, we always wanted a boy' or or 'She's my special one because she's just like me.' It takes a huge amount of insight to get past these early influences."

Psychologists say the issue of favorites is one of the most common reasons families seek counseling. Experts believe it's the main factor driving sibling rivalry. In scenes played out in real families and in fictitious ones--from the Simpsons to the Brady Bunch--siblings constantly compare their relative standings.

And in a recent pilot study, researchers were surprised to discover that about 80% of older mothers reported feeling closest to or relying mostly on one son or daughter, even though they denied that child was the favorite.

"Parents often have essentially a 'favorite' child despite a very powerful norm against it," said Dr. Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University and one of the authors of the study.

It's unclear whether that means a parent actually loves one child more than another. The trouble is, to children it looks as if the parent does love a sibling more. Children closely monitor how their parents deal with their siblings, Howard said, noting that children respond to three-quarters of interactions they see between a parent and another child. Only a third of children feel that their parents love and pay attention to them equally.

While most of this research has been done in young families, experts are beginning to look at the dynamic in adults. That's because people are living longer, and parents and children have more time together than before. "For the first time in human history, children can expect to have 30 or 40 or 50 years of shared lifetime with their parents as adults," Pillemer said.

In many ways, the parent-child relationship is just as crucial when the child is an adult as when he is growing up. Older parents who have good relationships with their children do better psychologically, Pillemer noted. And financially, society will save millions if these relationships are good, because these children are more likely to take care of disabled and elderly parents.

Pillemer and his colleague, Dr. J. Jill Suitor, director of women's and gender studies at Louisiana State University, plan to study 600 older families, looking at which children are favored and how that affects the family over time. "We're looking for how and why does that happen. How do the relationships in the same family differ?" Pillemer said. It will take years to answer those questions. But researchers know that in young families, favoritism can have a profound impact.

"The dynamics can be very powerful, and they can really influence everyone in the family, as well as the long-term emotional development of the child," said Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist and chairman of the American Psychiatric Assn.'s council on children, adolescents and families.

Those who are favored get a self-esteem boost at a critical time in life. Like the oldest, who naturally gets more attention because for a time, he or she is the only child, the "favorites" have higher IQs and are more verbal. They are 20% more likely than nonfavored children to place on the high end of a conscientiousness scale, noted Dr. Frank Sulloway, a psychologist who studies how family dynamics affect personality development.

"The more you're loved and pampered and favored, the more secure you feel," said Sulloway, a visiting professor at the UC Berkeley and former MacArthur Foundation fellow.

But favoritism can be a mixed blessing. These children may experience extra pressure to attend their father's alma mater or excel in sports. Some are smothered emotionally and don't feel they can go away to college. And the other, unfavored siblings are often angry at them.

These children are often emotionally scarred. Sulloway said they can be more anxious, neurotic and susceptible to depression. Sometimes a nonfavored child decides he can't compete and, to get attention, does everything wrong. For others, the slights, whether perceived or real, push him to prove he is just as good.

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