The Danger of Playing Favorites With Your Kids.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


During my childhood, it was no biggie that my youngest sister – the baby – was clearly the “favorite,” the kid everyone in the family liked most. This never bothered me; I liked her best too. Not surprisingly, she gets along with everyone. Strangers meet her once and rave about her. The rest of us kids have our strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone likes us. Enough said.


But I never felt my mother favored one of us to the detriment of her other children. We competed and often fought outright for her favor. She praised and criticized us for different attributes. When she died this past spring, I wasn’t surprised that she had divided up her small pile of assets equally four ways. We all had equal rights when it came to her love.


Interestingly, a new study from research powerhouse Cornell University uncovers evidence that moms' favoritism can cause depression in her kids – not just in childhood, but in adulthood long after the nuclear family has dissolved. And it’s not the rejected kids who feel it worst – all kids in the family suffer.


“Whether mom's golden child or her black sheep, siblings who sense that their mother consistently favors or rejects one child over others are more likely to show depressive symptoms as middle-aged adults,” explains Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and associate dean for extension and outreach in the College of Human Ecology. His Cornell survey, co-directed by Purdue sociologist Jill Suitor, appears in the Journal of Marriage and Family April 2010 issue. The study drew on interviews with 275 mothers in their 60s and 70s with at least two living adult children and also surveyed 671 offspring of the women.


"It doesn't matter whether you are the chosen child or not, the perception of unequal treatment has damaging effects for all siblings," Pillemer explains. "The less favored kids may have ill will toward their mother or preferred sibling, and being the favored child brings resentment from one's siblings and the added weight of greater parental expectations."

leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Maryellie --

What a moving and insightful story. You showed incredible maturity to realize you wouldn't trade places. Wow. Have you read Hope Edelman's Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers? Both are great books about losing your mom at a young age. Sounds like you could write a helluva book yourself.


My mom died very recently and what we discovered during her illness and in the days following her death was that everyone truly thought they were her favorite. She had 7 children and the main subject of my sister’s eulogy was that we each thought we were the favorite. Several of my cousins and our various friends from growing up commented how much they would miss her, that they felt that they were almost her 8th child, a favorite child. We had 7 women say that she was their best friend. “I know she had a lot of friends, but I always knew I was her closest friend,” they would say.

What a gift to spread such love. I hope I do the same for my children and their friends, as well as my many nieces and nephews.


This study could be written about my family. My mother died when I was an infant. My father married my stepmother when I was a toddler. For all intents and purposes, my stepmother is my mother, and I love her very much. My stepmother had my younger sister when I was about 4. For as long as I (and my older sibs)can remember, my youngest sister was favored by my stepmother (for obvious reasons). However, obvious reasons don't comfort you when you're little and your stepmother is the only mother you've ever known. Her favoritism did devastating damage to my self esteem (repercussions of which I feel to this day). However, I think her favoritism did more damage to my younger sister. I adore her and always have - never held Mom's behavior against her. But, I think she's always felt so guilty about it. I remember when I was in college (and my younger sister was still at home), I put most of the pieces together and decided that I would not want to trade positions with her. I might have esteem issues, but the guilt issues are worse. I have only one child (and so don't have to deal with the favoritism thing myself).