When parents play favourites, what happens to the kids?

It turns out parents do behave differently with their children

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

Many siblings, when they get together as adults, joke about which child was loved the most. But is it really a joke or is there an edge of truth that still rankles us?

In one study, researchers asked adults whether their mom played favourites when they were kids. Close to 85 per cent of respondents perceived that she did.

But surely once we move out of the nest, our annoyance regarding sibling favouritism subsides? No so. Upset from perceived favouritism appears to be long-lasting.

It is likely that we will fret long into adulthood over why a particular sibling got a better deal than we did.

Is sibling favouritism real, or perceived?

It turns out parents do behave differently with their children and, of course, children have their different thresholds for noticing these differences.

Researchers have studied favouritism both by observing children as they interact with their parents and by asking children and their parents to report on their interactions. How often do the parent and child laugh or play together? How often do they fight or argue?

These ratings are then compared across the different siblings to determine if one child receives more positive or negative attention than the other.

One of the reassuring findings from these studies is that when the differences in how siblings are treated by parents are small, it has little to no consequence.

It is only when the differences are large that we see links to children’s health and relationships.

Parental stress plays a role

Research on all different kinds of relationships shows us that a big part of how we get along with others is about the fit of personalities. We find one person easier or more interesting than another. The same holds for parents and children.

Although most parents love and nurture all their children, they will inevitably find that they are more in tune with one child than another. One child is perhaps a bit more social; another is more ready to anger, a third finds learning easier.

These differences in how parents treat siblings have a basis in children’s genes. Parents treat identical twins, who share 100 per cent of their DNA, more similarly than they treat non-identical twins, who share about 50 per cent of their genes.

The more the personalities of siblings differ, the more their parents treat them differently.

Another driver of parenting is, of course, a child’s age. Parents interact with and discipline their children based on changes in developmental capabilities as they grow. Age and personality explain some of the differences in the parental treatment that children perceive.

But while age and personality play a role in why one child gets more from a parent than another, over and above this are issues of parental stress. When parents experience financial strain, mental health problems or partner conflict, differential parenting or sibling favouritism becomes more marked.

Impacts on physical and mental well-being

Unfortunately, perceived favouritism can create a divide between siblings. It is associated with siblings feeling less close to one another, both in childhood and adulthood.

This finding has been established for both perceived, as well as observed favouritism.

Popular wisdom suggests that the favoured child receives benefits from their special treatment. While this may be the case when favouritism is slight, research suggests that none of the siblings benefit when it is more marked. That is, when favouritism is considerable, it is associated with all siblings showing less physical and mental well-being.

Reasons for this are not currently clear. It is possible that children are activated by injustice. Or perhaps even when they are favoured they fear falling into the realm of being disfavoured.

But most reassuring for parents are the findings that parental explanations for why they are treating siblings differently really change the experience for children. Explanations that focus on their different personalities, ages or needs are associated with lower levels of distress for children.

Five tips for fairer parenting

  1. Be aware. The first step is to be aware that it happens, and to seek out help or support from partners, family members, friends or health professionals — to try to understand why it happens. As a reminder, playing favourites is more likely to occur when your stress levels are high.
  2. Listen. When your child complains or you see fights between siblings in which they mention one getting more than another, try not to discount it. Be receptive to the child’s feelings and think about why they might be feeling this way.
  3. Provide an explanation. Sometimes, children do need to be treated differently, like when one child is sick, hurt or has special needs. When this happens, explain it to avoid any misunderstanding.
  4. Avoid comparing children. While it may be a natural tendency to say “why can’t you be more like your sister?” this sets up an unfair comparison. Try to focus on what each child does well, without pitting them against one another.
  5. Carve out individual time for each child. As much as possible, try to find 10 minutes each day to spend one-on-one with each child so that each has your full attention. Do any activity that they love to do with you.

___

Authors: Sheri Madigan, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary and Jennifer Jenkins, Atkinson Chair of Early Child Development

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

What do you want to see done with Ladysmith’s old train station?

Island Corridor Foundation meets with community to discuss the future of the Railway Station

Easter Fun Day

Kids fill their baskets with treats Saturday at Fuller Lake Park

Mad scramble for Easter treats

Crofton Easter Egg Hunt brings out hordes of kids and massive bunny chases

Mandatory spaying and neutering looms for outdoor Chemainus cats

North Cowichan considers bylaw to control stray and feral cat issues

Fisheries and oceans minister spends Earth Day in Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Jonathan Wilkinson in riding to support candidate Michelle Corfield

What’s age got to do with it? B.C. couple with 45-year gap talks happy marriage

An Armstrong couple that has 45-year age gap began turning heads after being featured on show Extreme Love.

Pug life: B.C. town boasts waggish list of dog names

Freedom-of-information request lists most ‘pupular’ dog names registered in White Rock

VIDEO: Duncan-Nanaimo’s Funkanometry bow out of ‘World of Dance’ with ‘After Hours’ routine

Judges praised them as entertainers, and urged them to work a bit more on their dancing

VIDEO: Fish farming company launches $30-million vessel to treat salmon for sea lice in B.C. waters

Freshwater treatment an improvement but fish farms should be removed from sea, says conservationist

Singh says childhood abuse steeled him for scrutiny and stress of politics

He recounts the assaults for the first time in his book Love & Courage

Despite five extra weeks’ parental leave in Canada, dads still face stigma: survey

One reason people said dads don’t need leave is because they can just bond with their kids at weekend

Vintage bottles, magic cards, a 1969 Playboy: Quirky items found in historic B.C. buildings

Crews set aside some of the funkier pieces emerging from the construction rubble

PHOTOS: Inside the ‘shoe house’ in Northern B.C.

A rare look inside the famous Kitseguecla Lake Road shoe house, with a tour led by owner Toby Walsh

Thieves steal five of Seven Dwarves ornaments honouring B.C. couple’s late son

For the second time in a year, several garden ornaments stolen from Cloverdale family’s front garden

Most Read