The perception of child favoritism in a family may have more of an impact on the child-parent relationship with the youngest sibling than it does with the oldest, according to a new study by a researcher at Brigham Young University (BYU).
The findings show that if the younger sibling feels like the favorite and the parents agree, then that relationship is strengthened. But if the younger sibling doesn’t feel like the favorite and the parents agree with that, the relationship is weakened. Surprisingly with older siblings, whether they feel favored or not has no major impact on the parent-child relationship.
What could be the reason behind this difference? Jensen says social comparison — one sibling comparing himself to the other — is the culprit.
“It’s not that first-borns don’t ever think about their siblings and themselves in reference to them,” said study leader Dr. Alex Jensen, BYU School of Family Life assistant professor.
“It’s just not as active of a part of their daily life. My guess is it’s probably rarer that parents will say to an older sibling, ‘Why can’t you be more like your younger sibling?’ It’s more likely to happen the other way around.”
The findings are based on a longitudinal study involving more than 300 families, each with two teenage children.
To measure levels of favoritism, the researchers analyzed responses from both children and their parents. The children were asked what their relationship with their parents is like while their parents were asked how much warmth and conflict they experienced with each of their children.
The results show that children, on average, experience more warmth and more conflict with their mothers, but the rates of change in relationship for both mother and father were similar.
While this particular study observed families with two children, Jensen believes that the data would show similar results for larger families as well.
“If you had to ask me, ‘Do we see the same thing with the second born and third born?’ I think probably so,” Jensen said. “The youngest kid looks up to everybody, the next youngest kid looks up to everyone older than them, and it just kind of goes up the line.”
Many parents believe that treating all their children equally is the best way to mitigate any negative effects, but Jensen says this may not be the case; instead, parents should strive for fairness, not equality.
“When parents are more loving and they’re more supportive and consistent with all of the kids, the favoritism tends to not matter as much,” Jensen said. “Some parents feel like ‘I need to treat them the same.’ What I would say is ‘No you need to treat them fairly, but not equally.’ If you focus on it being okay to treat them differently because they’re different people and have different needs, that’s OK.”
Source: Brigham Young University