Even before Jan Brady famously whined, "Marsha,
Marsha, Marsha," parents have known they're not supposed to name a
favorite child. Studies have consistently illustrated that this
approach can have a negative effect on children and
But now a new study, published in the Journal of Marriage and
Family, has found these effects can last long into adulthood,
making a link between parental favoritism (or even just the
perception of it) and symptoms of depression later in life.
The phenomenon is fairly common: According to the study,
70 percent of mothers named a child to whom they felt closest and
73 percent chose a child with whom they had the most arguments and
disagreements-and children were even more likely to believe their
mothers had made these differentiations.
"The majority of parents identify a child who they
prefer," says Dr. Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist
and lead author on the study. "The key issue is trying not to
demonstrate that through obviously treating the children
One way to do this is to avoid making comparisons between
children, says Dr. Ada Wainwright, a psychology professor at the
College of DuPage. Instead of wondering why one child is taking
longer to master a skill, for instance, focus on the positive
traits they have as individuals. "Each child is different," she
says. "That's a big challenge of parenthood, to recognize who your
child is and to help them be the best person they can be, not who
you want them to be."
Wainwright also encourages parents to be aware of
fairness-are they always siding with one child during sibling
arguments or spending more on gifts for one over the other? "Try to
make sure you pay attention to each child."
Is there a time when siblings are more tolerant of outward
displays of favoritism? When it seems fair, like if they have a
brother with a disability, Pillemer says. He also suggests parents
stay open-minded instead of getting defensive with relatives or
friends who suggest they may be favoring one child over another.
"It's a very emotionally charged issue," he says-but that's all the
more reason to stay aware.
See more of Laura's stories here.
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