If you aren’t talking about this already, you will be soon. The cover of the latest issue of Time magazine carries the title “Why Mom Liked You Best: The Science of Favoritism.” The article is by Jeffrey Kluger, who is as good a journalist as I’ve ever read, but on this one I think he got it wrong.
He writes: “It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that ALL parents have a preferred son or daughter.”
The capital letters are mine — and that word, all, is what got me riled up reading the article. It is a sensational approach to the reality that parents certainly have different relationships with their children, and often have unequal relationships with those children. But it is so much more nuanced than Mr. Kluger suggests, making his article a lost opportunity for a more complex conversation.
Let’s start with the second part of the Time headline: The SCIENCE of Favoritism. Those capital letters are mine, too, because I read the article looking for the science. I expected a new study, and when I found it, I planned to pounce and write an entire post on it. But it just wasn’t there.
There was one 2005 study, by Katherine Conger at the University of California, Davis (whose name Mr. Kluger appears to have misspelled), who visited nearly 400 sets of parents and their children three times over three years. She asked them questions and videotaped their interactions, then concluded that “65 percent of mothers and 70 percent of fathers exhibited a preference for once child, usually the older one.”
Sixty-five, even 70 percent, is not ALL.
Mr. Kluger then goes on to look at the animal kingdom, and from that concludes that we are biologically programmed to prefer one child over the others.
As with so much else in child-rearing behavior, it begins with the parents’ survival needs: the biologically narcissistic act of replicating themselves through succeeding generations. This impels Mom and Dad to tilt in favor of their biggest, healthiest offspring, since those kids will be more reproductively successful and get more of the family’s genes into the next generation.
That kind of reductionist, bottom-line behavior is something we share with creatures throughout the animal kingdom. A crested-penguin mother will kick the smaller of her two eggs out of the nest, the better to focus on the presumably heartier chick in the bigger shell. A black-eagle mother will watch idly while her bigger chick rips her smaller one to ribbons.
Okaaaaay. So this is part of survival of the fittest, and we are programmed (all of us) to act this way, which means all of us prefer our first born, right?
No, Mr. Kluger writes. Because sometimes it’s the youngest.
That’s not the only contradiction in the argument. There are dads who prefer daughters, and dads who prefer sons; mothers are equally unpredictable. There is evidence that parents prefer the biggest, strongest, most charismatic child, and evidence that they prefer the smallest and weakest, the one who needs them most. Some parents prefer the child most like them, while others clash most with that child. The only son or only daughter gets singled out — for special treatment, or higher expectations.
In other words, all parents’ relationships with all their children are all different. And all parents already know that.
Do I believe that some parents have a favorite? Absolutely. I also agree that consistent favoritism is scarring for children, and in the video below, from this morning’s “Today” show (I make a fleeting appearance), Dr. Gail Saltz gives excellent tips about how to make sure your children all feel secure in your love. READ MORE