For your entire lifetime, your parents have kept up a very, very good lie.
Whether you were the straight A sibling or the one acting out in class, your parents have led you to believe that they love all their children equally.
But science tells a different story. In research that will vindicate self-pitying siblings everywhere, sociologist Katherine Conger's recently resurfaced longitudinal study found what many have suspected all along: Parents totally have a favorite child.
Koger and her research team followed 384 families in which a pair of siblings was born within four years of each other. The research, published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2005, revealed that 74 percent of mothers and 70 percent of fathers reported preferential treatment toward one child, according to Quartz.
The parents didn't let on which child they preferred, but Koger and her team had a theory about who felt the discrepancy most: “Our working hypothesis was that older, earlier born children would be more affected by perceptions of differential treatment due to their status as older child -- more power due to age and size, more time with parents -- in the family,” Koger told Quartz.
But the hypothesis was completely wrong: Firstborns actually reported feeling they were the preferred child more often, while younger siblings said "they could sense the firstborn bias and that it affected their self-esteem -- much more so than older kids," Science of Us wrote.
After learning the results, researchers figured that little siblings detected this firstborn bias because an older brother or sister led all of the "firsts": They were the first to win a sports game, first to place in a spelling bee, etc.
The research also found that no matter a child's birth order, every single one was suspicious of their parents liking another better. “Everyone feels their brother or sister is getting a better deal,” Conger said.
So what do we make of all of this? For one, siblings have it tough. Always competing for their parents' love, never knowing who's ahead. But the good news for brothers and sisters is that the relationship serves tons of benefits: Having a sibling may make you more intelligent, more likely to have a stable marriage as an adult and can serve as a built-in support system.
Maybe it's time, kids, for you to treat your parents with their very same medicine: Assure them that you love them both the same, too. (Wink, wink.)
Despite its taboo in our society, we consider some cases of parental favoritism to be fair and even necessary. For example, parents give more attention to newborns than they do to their older children. The same goes for children who are sick or disabled. In these situations, parents often discuss the unequal treatment with the disfavored children in order to assure them that it's nothing personal.
Other reasons for parental favoritism most of us would judge as unfair, yet they don't surprise us much. Parents might spend more time with and feel closer to same-gender children than to opposite-gender children. In mixed families, parents favor their biological children over step-children. In patriarchal cultures, parents simply favor boys over girls.
There are several additional factors that predict favoritism, one of which is birth order: parents favor first- and last-born children over middle children. This occurs in part because middle children will never be the only child living at home - at some point first-borns and last-borns will have their parents all to themselves. Overall, first-borns get the most privileges and last-borns receive the most parental affection.
A child's personality and behavior can also affect how parents treat them. Parents behave more affectionately toward children who are pleasant and affectionate, and they direct more discipline toward children who act out or engage in deviant behavior. Because girls tend to be warmer and less aggressive than boys, parents generally favor daughters over sons (but only in non-patriarchal cultures).
Favoritism is also more likely when parents are under a great deal of stress (e.g., marital problems, financial worries). In these cases, parents may be unable to inhibit their true feelings or monitor how fair they're behaving. Evolutionary theorists argue that when emotional or material resources are limited, parents will favor children who have the most potential to thrive and reproduce.
Unfortunately, the consequences of parental favoritism are what you might expect - they're mostly bad. Disfavored children experience worse outcomes across the board: more depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem, and poorer academic performance. These repercussions are far more extreme than any benefits the favored children get out of it (negative things just have a stronger impact on people than positive things). And it's not all rosy for the favored children either - their siblings often come to resent them, poisoning those relationships.
Many of these consequences persist long after children have grown up and moved out of the house. People don't soon forget that they were disfavored by their parents, and many people report that being disfavored as a child continues to affect their self-esteem and their relationships in adulthood.
To make matters worse, parents are even more likely to play favorites once their children are grown up, sustaining the toxic family dynamics (e.g., bad feelings, sibling resentment). The causes of the favoritism, however, are a bit different once the children become adults. Parents still favor daughters and less deviant children, but they also give preference to children who live closer, share the parents' values, and, not surprisingly, have provided the parents with emotional or financial support.
It's important to keep in mind that parental favoritism is only problematic when there are consistent and arbitrary differences in treatment. In cases where favoritism is unavoidable (e.g., with newborns, needier children), parents who explain its necessity to the other children can usually offset any negative consequences.
Interestingly, children's well-being is highest when parents exhibit no favoritism toward anyone, even higher than the well-being of children who are favored by their parents. This disparity may occur because favored children have to contend with sibling hostility, or perhaps because families that practice favoritism tend to be dysfunctional in other ways.
Nearly all parents worry about whether they play favorites. But even when parents vow to treat their children equally, they soon find that this is just not possible. Every child is different and parents must respond to their unique characteristics appropriately. You shouldn't react to a 3-year-old's tantrums in the same way as you would to a 13-year-old's. You can't deal with aggressive children in the same way as passive children. Even identical twins can't be treated identically. When it comes down to it, every child wants to feel like they're different, not clones of their siblings. The best parents can do is stay aware of any differential treatment they give and try to be as fair as possible.
(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)