Pick Me! Do Some Mothers Have a Favorite Child?
by Allison Ford
For many mothers, the question “Who’s your favorite child?” presents an impossible quandary. How is a parent to choose between the most precious people in the world? Most women would sooner admit to feeding their children a steady diet of McGriddles and lead paint before confessing that they felt a stronger affinity for one of their children over his or her siblings.
But at least a few of these women would be lying.
In a British survey conducted in 2008, 16 percent of women revealed that they preferred one of their children over the rest. Other surveys have indicated that as many as 30 percent of mothers admit to having a favorite child, and when mothers of grown children are studied, the number jumps to 80 percent. While many women say that they love all their children the same or equally but in different ways, it turns out that some women do have a clear favorite.
Although admitting favoritism can seem like the most treacherous dereliction of a mother’s duty, psychologists point out that it’s perfectly natural. It can be a great source of guilt and anxiety for mothers, but it’s normal for a parent to bond with one child over another, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
The question of which child becomes the favorite in each family doesn’t seem to follow any particular pattern of birth order or gender, but some studies have provided clues about who the most likely candidates are. Parents naturally respond more positively to a child who shares their own interests or who is most like them. Mothers who are unhappy in their own relationships tend to fixate more on whichever child is the most demonstrative and affectionate, rather than on the children who are more reserved with their feelings, because that affection serves the mothers’ own emotional needs. Also, mothers are more likely to name certain daughters as their favorite children when they have several things in common with their moms.
Animal-behavior research has suggested that part of these parents’ selection process might be innate. A study on a species of beetle that lives in a two-parent family structure found that parents instinctually and overwhelmingly favored their older offspring. The researchers, from the University of Manchester (UK), theorized that adults favor older children either because the older children’s maturity gives them a better chance of survival or because older children are simply more proficient at soliciting resources and attention from their parents. Of course, human family relationships are more complicated than those of beetles; some experts point out that the oldest child in a family might not be at an advantage after all, since the experience of first-time parenthood can leave mothers stressed and overwhelmed. In a study at Cornell University, the favorite child in a family was usually the one who had experienced problems as a child, whether psychological or physical, that were beyond his or her control. Parents reacted strongly to children who suffered from diseases or developmental delays, but not to children whose problems seemed surmountable, such as poor self-discipline or illegal behavior.
Don’t Blame Mom
One reason mothers feel so guilty about favoring one child over another is that they imagine their actions having dire consequences for their children’s entire lives. Well, those moms can breathe easy, because that doesn’t seem to be the case. A study published in 2009 in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences discovered that this type of conflict between parents and siblings has little effect on a child’s future happiness. Adult respondents who claimed to have been treated less favorably than their siblings were found to be just as satisfied as those who reported that they were the favored child. Besides, being the favorite might not be all it’s cracked up to be, anyway—some psychologists think that favorite children have the potential to become spoiled or to develop a sense of entitlement, which may cause them difficulties later in life.
Interestingly, children are actually not very good at knowing exactly who the favorite child is, if there is one at all. The Cornell study found that only 41 percent of children were able to identify correctly which child in the family was their mother’s favorite, based simply on observed behavior and perception of treatment.
It all comes down to how children witness and interpret their parents’ behavior, and these impressions can make parents feel as if they can do no right. Two children growing up in the same family may have the same parents, the same resources, and the same parenting philosophy, but their experiences are bound to be widely different because the children themselves are—they have different needs, different personalities, different strengths, and different weaknesses. And though parents try to treat each successive child the same, it’s natural for parenting to evolve and for the family dynamic to change, along with children’s perceptions. Younger children might feel marginalized because their parents had given up on taking pictures by the time they came around, while older children are usually quick to criticize parents’ lax discipline with younger siblings.
When parents discuss their “favorite” child, what they’re often saying is simply that there is one child in the family who’s easier to relate to or is more like them. Parents are people, too, and they’re naturally drawn to certain personalities and character traits. Many parents reveal that although they might like a certain child a bit more than they do the others, that has no bearing on the amount of love they show all their children. But perhaps that’s easy for me to say … since in my family, I’m the favorite.