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."
Another thing for moms to worry about, right? Bring on the guilt! Because we all know that avoiding favoritism may be difficult – if not impossible. Seventy percent of moms surveyed named a child to whom they felt closest. Only 15% of children saw equal treatment by their mothers. Over 90% of children and 73% of mothers specified a child with whom the mother battled most frequently.
On bad days and good days, it’s easy – natural – for any mom to rely on one child more than another, to criticize the troublemaker and reward the quiet, obedient child. What seems important is fairness when it comes to measurable quantities like time, compliments, privileges and financial support. We’ve all heard those heart-breaking stories about parents favoring one child, paying for one to attend college while refusing another, indulging one while denying others, wreaking lifelong damage.
Openness goes a long way, too. If you favor one child, why not admit it? Your kids know anyway, right? “Thank god you’re so responsible,” I tell my middle child nearly daily. I thank my oldest for repeatedly breaking up sibling fights and knowing when to diffuse a tense family drama. I try to lavish praise and attention on my youngest who always complains she’s not as smart, as fast, or as strong as her two older sibs. (She’s right.)
When I look back on my own mother, the truth is I always suspected she LIKED my two sisters more than she liked my brother and me - the way you experience kismet with friends or find someone fun to hang out with. Maybe they were more easygoing, better athletes, less demanding, more like her in most ways. Whatever. What allowed me to hold my head up among my siblings – and as an adult to avoid the psychological trauma the Cornell study describes -- was that Mom treated us equally when it came to time, attention, chocolate treats from her purse, birthday presents, etc.
So in my own family, when one of the kids sidles up to me and asks who my favorite child is, sotto voce I reliably answer “You.” The interrogator always laughs. “You say that to each of us, right?” I admit I do. There’s no other right answer. They are all my favorites.