The special sibling: why every parent has a favourite child

The special sibling why every parent has a favourite child

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Experts believe that favouritism in families can cause lasting psychological damage – for golden children and the rest

My parents were hardly unique in having a favourite offspring. For my father, it was Steve — a selection made mostly on the basis of primogeniture. “Heir apparent” was the term my father used, and while I didn’t know what it meant, I was pretty sure that it didn’t apply to me. For my mother, the favourite was Bruce, the youngest. It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that every parent has a preferred son or daughter — and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: the favoured kids keep quiet about their status, the better to preserve the good thing they’ve got going. The unfavoured kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents insist that none of it is true. The larger the family, the more acute the problem — simply because there are more aggrieved children.

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Studies back this up. In one at the University of California Davis, researchers assembled a group of 384 adolescent sibling pairs and their parents. Overall, the study concluded that 65 per cent of mothers and 70 per cent of fathers exhibited a preference for one child — in most cases, the older one. But just because favouritism is everywhere doesn’t mean that it’s as easy to understand as it seems, or that there are universal truths about which kids will be tapped as the best-loved. “My mum didn’t like my older sister and did like me,” says Roseann Henry, an editor and mother of two girls. “Everyone assumed I had it great, except that my sister tortured me pretty much all the time — and really, what affects daily life more for a kid: the approval of a parent or the day-to-day torment of an older sister?”

If the parental habit of assigning different values to different children in a single brood can cause such pain, it’s a wonder that it ever became such a firmly established part of human nature. As with so much else, the favouritism impulse begins with the parents’ own survival needs; the biologically narcissistic act of trying to replicate themselves through succeeding generations. This impels mum and dad to tilt in favour of their biggest, healthiest, prettiest offspring on the theory that those kids will be more reproductively successful than others. It’s the same strategy that drives the crested penguin to kick her smaller egg out of the nest and the black eagle mother to watch idly while her bigger chick rips her smaller one to ribbons.

Humans, however, do bring more to the game. Compassion — a feature that is seen a lot more commonly among our species than among any other — is more likely to be at work. But so are some practices that we share with non-human species. In her elegant book,Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection, the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy cites work conducted with coots. Unlike other birds, coots don’t pour most of their parenting efforts into their strongest chicks, but spread the care around in the hope of maximising the number of offspring that survive. In case the mothers forget which chick is the youngest (coots do all look remarkably alike), nature provides an unmistakable cue in the form of a bit of fancy red plumage on the babies’ heads. Mothers will deliberately steer extra food to the reddest head in the bunch, reckoning that that baby needs the most care. Perhaps my mother was no different.

The pattern of parents with crossgender preferences in their kids — the dad who’s all but helpless in the face of his daughter’s charms, or the mum who adores her eldest son — is more common than we may think, as the psychologist Catherine Salmon discovered in a 2003 study published in the journal Human Nature. “I asked subjects to list which child in the family was their mother and father’s favourite,” she says. “Overall, the most likely candidate for the mother’s favourite was the first-born son and for the father, it was the last-born daughter. You would think fathers would favour their sons, but there is a tendency for them to dote on their little princess. Meanwhile, mothers tend to dote on their first-born sons.”

As a rule, first and last-born children have a better shot of being at least one parent’s favourite than middle kids do. “If you have a child who is different for any reason — especially being the only girl or boy,” Salmon says, “that child is going to get extra attention and investment. This takes away from the negative aspects of being in that disadvantaged birth-order position.”

Whichever child becomes the favourite, once the patterns are established, they’re awfully hard to break. Still, favouritism does have some flexibility to it, depending on what are known as family domains — the different venues or situations in which family members operate: at the dinner table or on the soccer field. And the shifting locales can lead to shifting preferences. The sporty dad who favours his athletic son may be driven to distraction by the boy’s restless energy when it comes time to read a book. When dad is looking for thoughtful parent-child bonding he may thus turn to his daughter. Over the long course of an entire childhood, the son may still come out on top, but the daughter will get enough emotional nourishment that the overall disparity may not wind up being terribly significant to her.

You can’t do much about your gender or your birth order, but you can learn to make the most out of the niche that you’ve got. The non-favoured daughter who talks film with her movie-loving mother may have come by her own love of the cinema naturally — or she may have come by it strategically, knowing that was one way to win some extra maternal attention. In this sense, kids are a bit like tree leaves, sorting themselves out so that they grow in a shaft of light not blocked by the leaf above. Sons and daughters learn to game the system on a more day-to-day basis too, flipping blatant favouritism to the shared advantage of all the siblings — deploying the “favourite” to ask for the things that they all want.

While all the siblings can reap small-scale benefits from such ploys, the larger issue for psychologists — to say nothing of parents themselves — is what the long-term damage of favouritism may be. Not all psychologists agree, but as a rule their advice to parents is simple: if you absolutely have to have a favourite — and you probably do — at least try to keep it to yourself.

Clare Stocker, a research professor in developmental psychology at the University of Denver, has amassed evidence showing that unfavoured children may turn their disappointment not only outward, in the form of aggression toward the first-tier brother or sister, but inward, in the form of private emotional turmoil. She studied 136 sibling pairs from one western US city and its suburbs and found that kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. Some of the subjects would begin exhibiting behavioural problems. That would lead parents to crack down on them, only widening the apparent gap between the kind of treatment mum and dad were meting out to them and the kind being lavished on the favoured child.

Patricia East, a developmental psychologist and researcher in the department of paediatrics at the University of California San Diego (and an identical twin), stresses that the parents’ goal should not be to treat all of their kids identically. That’s not only impossible, it’s unwise, since every child has a particular temperament and set of qualities that have to be dealt with in particular ways. Rather, the objective should be differential but fair treatment that, East says, plays well to kids’ unique qualities, their emotional optimism, their happiness. “It would be ideal if parents recognised these things and parented according to the individual child’s aptitudes and personality.” Attention to particular strengths can be paid around the home. It may be impossible not to get frustrated at the child who is not a natural student and forever tries to dodge homework, but it’s not impossible to balance that with applause for the same child’s woodworking gifts or fashion sense.

The damage that can be done to an unfavoured child throughout the long slog of childhood is easy to imagine and understand. Harder to fathom are the ways that the best-loved son or daughter can suffer. The biggest risk may be that when you spend your early life enjoying the huzzahs of your parents, you may be unprepared for a larger society in which you’re just one young adult out of many. There’s nothing wrong with a puffed-up child learning a little humility — indeed, it may be essential to social and professional success. But what happens when favoured kids don’t learn it? What happens when an outsized ego resists being brought down to size?

Favoured siblings have other burdens to carry well before adulthood — among them, a sense of guilt. One of the best things about favouritism conflicts is that they usually fade in significance as children grow older. “Usually”, of course, is not the same as always, and childhood resentments may never be entirely forgotten. Life issues, such as which child becomes the caretaker of aged parents or which is bequeathed most in the will, can often become occasions to refight old wars. Still, in the best of circumstances, even those battles can be fleeting. For every sibling bond damaged by parental favouritism there are many more brothers and sisters who make it to adulthood with their love — and their humour —intact. Even into middle age, my brothers and I — including Bruce — continue to try to coax our septuagenarian mother to concede that Bruce was her favourite son. And honouring the code of maternal omertà, she continues to deny it.

Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. From The Sibling Effect (c) 2011 by Jeffrey Kluger. The book is available from The Times Bookshop, priced £16.99, free p&p, on 0845 2712134

‘I hate to admit it but I prefer my older son’

The question “Who is your favourite?” makes me recoil with horror. But every parent knows, deep down, that they have one. After all, most of us know whether we were, or were not, our mother or father’s golden child. Often hidden to the outsider, within the walls of the family the special light that falls on the favourite child pools around them as warm and golden as a spotlight. I know this because I was my mother’s favourite, something that my two siblings have tacitly acknowledged as we’ve grown up. Her glow of favour has accompanied me through life, even though she died when I was in my twenties. My siblings — married, with multiple children — are all highly successful, professionally and personally, whereas my life is romantically chaotic and financially precarious. But every time they score another big life goal (Another wedding anniversary! Another child at public school! Another huge house!), I’ve felt smug in a quiet confidence that I had something bigger and better than they could ever achieve because I was Mum’s favourite.

Twenty years later, and now a mother to two sons, which of my children is basking in the golden light? Could I love one child more than the other? Don’t I adore them both, equally, albeit in very different ways? The truth is more complex. Push me, and even though I find it deeply uncomfortable and wrong, in the most atavistic way I’ll concede that I do have a favourite. It’s not a nice feeling. It makes me feel sick. But I’d be lying if I denied it.

Having a favourite is not the same as choosing which child I’d pull from a burning building. That’s a question I’m completely incapable of answering, although I’ve run the scenario more than once in my head. But while I literally cannot answer that, I can tell you unquestionably that my older son is my favourite. I write this from behind a cloak of anonymity, as the idea of putting up my hand and admitting that I prefer one child over the other feels like a shameful betrayal.

Look at us from the outside as a family and I don’t think you’d be able to guess which son I mean. Having a favourite, I’ve realised, has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of love and physical affection I pour on both children, nor the material gain afforded to one over the other. If anything, the opposite is true. I’m much tougher on my favourite child. I think this is because he reminds me utterly of myself, and I have a creeping suspicion that this might be why he’s my favourite.

I look at him and I know how he’s feeling. He walks into an unfamiliar scenario and I know pretty much how he’ll react. He makes a new friend, fails a test, is dreaming of a new Lego set, is angry, bored, loving, scared, and without him saying it, I understand what he’s going through because the tempo of his emotional life, his longings, fears, joys, are very similar to mine. We’re made of the same stuff physically too. His hair, skin, smell is like my own. Of course, he’s only 12, so time will change this, but for the moment, I feel he’s as much a part of me and me a part of him as he was when he was a baby. I understand his DNA.

His brother is different. It’s true to say that I admire him more. He’s charismatic and absolutely singular, easily as accomplished as his older brother. He’s unlike me, or anyone else I know. I’m more fascinated by him because he’s less familiar to me than my favourite son. I never understand what he’s thinking and have no idea about the path in life he’s taking. Does the fact that he looks like his father, from whom I’m divorced, affect the way I feel about him? Perhaps. His genes — dark hair, lanky limbs, piercing eyes — are less familiar than the blonde solidity I share with my older son.

I love my younger son deeply, and if anything I cuddle him more, pull him towards me more, linger a little longer over his bedtime story to (over)compensate, perhaps, for my subconscious feeling of loving him, if not less, then in a different way. I argue with him less than my favourite, too. When I put pressure on my favourite to get a better mark in maths, chastise him for rushing his homework, scold him for being greedy or selfish, I feel that I’m reprimanding myself, and I know he can handle it. His faults are like my own. I know exactly how much he can take, in the same way that I know myself.

I treat his younger brother with more caution because I have a less instinctive sense of how he can cope.

I feel a deeper sense of intimacy with his older brother. It’s the same intimacy that I shared with my mother. It’s uncomfortable to admit as a parent, but if you claim to love all your children equally I’d put money on the fact that you’re lying.

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