Birth Order's Bottom Line

Oldest, youngest, middle, only...theories abound about how a person's place within the family birth order affects intelligence, ambition, personality and future relationships. 

Mom and Dad Love Me Best (Are You Sure?)

Can favoritism be avoided?

An only child clearly has the advantage of always being mom and dad's favorite. When there is more than one child in the family, favoritism seems to be an abyss parents can't escape even when they try.

For Christmas this year, one of my daughters sent a bottle of wine with a custom label that reads, "Favorite Daughter." Her verbal instructions were to leave it out where her sister would see it. For almost all holidays including every Mother's Day in recent memory, her sister's gifts and cards are accompanied by the message, "I know I'm your favorite" or words to that effect.

Although their messages are laced with humor and both daughters are married with children of their own, being the favored child remains front and center. As a parent, I made a huge effort not to show partiality. A somewhat futile effort: No matter how hard a parent works at equality, children have their own perceptions. You can say, "I treated you all the same," but in reality, it is impossible. They are different ages, have different needs, and exhibit unique personalities that call for, at the least, different approaches to meeting those needs.

Amanda Kowal and Jennifer Kroll of the University of Missouri and Laurie Kramer of the University of Illinois found that meeting the needs of one of your children is far more acceptable to the other children if they perceive the "special" treatment as fair. If parents explain why they are spending more time with a sibling after dinner helping with homework or attending one child's sporting events and not another's, for example, the "untended" child will be more accepting. According to the study which appeared in the Journal of Family Psychology, parents also reduce their chance of hurting their own relationship with a child when the special treatment of a sibling is explained. Children who understand why a brother or sister receives differential treatment are less likely to harbor negative feelings toward the parents.

Laurie Kramer adds, "You'd think it would be clear when a child is receiving more positive or negative attention, and why that might be happening, but families don't seem to talk much about these differences unless someone complains." When parents don't explain, children form their own ideas, many of which are long-lasting.

Favoritism Lingers into Adulthood

At a holiday dinner I sat across from Jane in her 40s and Gina in her late 50s, two women I had met at other festivities over the years. I couldn't help but hear their conversation. Jane is the oldest of three (two girls and a boy); she talked about growing up as her mother's least favorite child. "We didn't agree on anything and butted heads constantly."

Gina, who is in her late fifties with two younger sisters, said that she was her mother's, but not her father's favorite. "That caused all kinds of grief for me." Gina talked about her middle sister who still feels ignored and left out: "I think she flounders in life because my parents didn't pay much attention to her."

Appearances of favoritism rarely change as children move into adolescence and adulthood. Listening to their conversation, Gina and Jane see it that way. They both laughed at the fact that to this day you could tell who the favored child is by how many pictures are displayed in their parents' homes and their placement.
Gina remains her mother's favorite and with her father dead, her pictures are front and center on a living room table.

"Sadly," Jane says, "there's only one photo of my brother, stuck way in the back. He was pretty much overlooked his entire life, and judging by the fact that the only photo of him is shoved to the rear of the table, nothing's changed." Jane, however, is an exception to lingering favoritism: "I've moved to the front of the picture gallery," she notes, "because of my intense interest in politics and books, a penchant my mother has. Now I'm her favorite, but it took 40 years to get there."

Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D., fellow PT blogger, points out in her book, The Favorite Child, that being the favorite child carries not only significant advantages, but also significant handicaps. So much depends on parents being able to create healthy, balanced doses of favoritism.

For all my counting cookies into separate bowls to be sure each of my four stepchildren had the exact same number in spite of age and metabolism differences, for rotating chores and turns in the front seat, and time alone with me in relatively equally portions, my adult children still vie to be the favorite. But, at least two of them think they are. Perhaps balanced doses of favoritism at work?

Copyright 2010 by Susan Newman