Parental favoritism does long-term damage

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — I was astonished to learn that 70 percent of mothers admitted to having a favorite child, even after the children became adults.

This is the surprising finding of a survey of 275 Boston-area mothers in their 60s and 70s, conducted by psychologist Karl Pillemer at Cornell University and his colleagues.

Their children also perceived parental favoritism. Only 15 percent of children saw equal treatment from their mothers.

Mothers had favorite children for different reasons. One child may be more like the parents in personality and values or have a more sunny and outgoing personality. Typically mothers preferred the older child or the baby.

Mothers also felt closer to children who had illnesses the mothers believed were not under the child’s control.

In contrast, parents did not prefer children who suffered from problems they could control, like substance abuse. 

Parental favoritism affects not only young and adolescent children but also has negative effects even when the children become adults.

“It doesn’t matter if you are favored or not,” according to Karl Pillemer, “The perception of unequal treatment treatment has damaging effects for all children.

“The less favored kids my have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling and being the favored child brings resentment from siblings, and the added weight of greater parental expectations.”

That is exactly what happened to me and my brother. I was the favored child. But this caused long-term damage.

My brother resented me and we were not friends as children. We did not have a good relationship until we were in our sixties.

When my husband and I had three children, we made strenuous efforts to treat them all equally.

We tried to head off perceptions of favoritism. We were scrupulous, for example, in giving each of them the same number of Christmas gifts.

Now that they are adults, we are still scrupulous in treating our three children the same. I even keep a chart on my computer recording the expense of each child’s gifts so we can treat them equally.

Our adult children understand very well that we are trying hard to treat them the same. In fact, they have told us that we don’t have to be so scrupulous. It doesn’t matter to them, they say, if one kid’s present costs a little more than the others.

The issue of treating children the same rears its ugly head particularly when parents make out their wills. One child may be wealthy while another may be struggling. One child may have a close relationship with his or her parents, helping them out as they age, while the other child ignores them.

Even in these circumstances, most lawyers try to convince the parents to divide their wealth equally. Unequal division of wealth by the parents often undermines the children’s relationships with each other. Parental favoritism certainly affects how children remember their parents.

Being the favored child has long-term consequences, studies show, and the favored child is not always the winner.

“Whether mom’s golden child or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child are more likely to show depressive symptoms as middle-aged adults” finds Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer in a study reported in Science Daily.

It’s easy to say parents should treat all children equally, but hard to do, especially when parents genuinely like one child far more than the others. It’s especially hard to do when one child is nicer to the parents than others.

The best way to prevent favoritism, I have found, is to communicate clearly you are treating your children equally with regard to presents, privileges and expensive outlays like paying for college. And then do it.

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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