Why you shouldn’t play favorites – but most parents do anyway

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 adolescents.

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 differently.”

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.

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