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I read this interesting article a while ago about The lifelong effects of the favorite child, also called parental differential treatment (PDT). I find this a fascinating topic, both from the perspective of being a (twin) sibling myself, and also from the perspective of a parent (which I am not, but many of you are, and I have been watching interactions between parents and children as an outside observer).
The article claims that parental favoritism is surprisingly common and occurs in up to 65% of families (in the United States). Without having read the studies, I do believe that favoritism can affect mental health. I mean, it can affect relationships in general but is surely more impactful in children when favoritism occurs within the family structure.
I’d be interested to know how exactly favoritism was “measured” in these studies, other than parents outright saying that they liked one child more than the other (which I cannot imagine happened very often, although maybe some parents are brave enough to admit it). I think this can be a very fluid, always-changing dynamic, too. Perception can be very subjective, and not everyone in the family will experience a situation in the same way.
I think that real favoritism has to have a component of repetition, a certain preferential treatment that occurs over and over again and is “recognizable” to an outsider. I think “situational” favoritism is much more common, but also potentially less harmful because aren’t all and any interactions with others potentially a sort of momentary favoritism?1
While I don’t believe that my parents had favorites, I remember there was a time during our early teen years, when my sister perceived that I was the ‘favorite child’. I do not believe that this is true, but perception is subjective.
Personality-wise, I was a much more agreeable, rule-following, non-confrontational child and didn’t test boundaries as much as my sister did. I can see in retrospect how she might have felt more reprimanded, even though I didn’t do anything intentionally to get on my parents’ good side or make her look bad on purpose. We were (are!) just very different people.
Laurie Kramer, a professor of applied psychology at Northeastern University in the US is quoted in the article, saying that “preferential treatment may begin for parents due to one child being easier to parent, or they may relate to that child more, see similarities between them and the child”. That makes so much sense to me. It’s not hard to fathom why favoritism could occur even if parents are adamant about loving their children equally. On a theoretical level, this might often be true, but on a daily interactive kind of level, it feels very human to me to interact differently with children who have different personalities.
I find this particularly interesting in my situation with my sister being the same age. It’s clear that even though we’re (fraternal) twins and were raised together in supposedly the same environment, we just turned out to have very different personalities. Of course, this can impact the family dynamic.
So the question arises: Is favoritism real when someone perceives it as such, or does favoritism have to be intentional? I am leaning towards the former because you can experience hurt, even if it was not intended.
At the same time, I do not believe that it necessarily causes long-term harm. I don’t think my sister has been traumatized by the time when she perceived me to be the ‘favorite child’, and she’d probably confirm this if I asked her. She’s a very well-adjusted adult with hardly any emotional issues. We are both close to our parents and to each other.
Finally, I think it’s almost impossible to treat siblings – or be treated as a sibling – completely equally, nor is it desirable. I do think everyone wants to – and should – be treated as an individual.
Have you experienced favoritism in your family or among your siblings? As a parent, are you aware or actively thinking about favoritism in your parenting approach?
- One thing that wasn’t considered in the article but I contemplated while thinking about all this: What is the reason for children preferring one parent over the other at times? ↩︎