The topic is typically addressed in terms of how parent-child bonds affect sibling relations especially when parents pass away. This is because while parents may deny having a favourite, the children most times beg to differ sensing that one is truly more loved than the other or others.
How parents unknowingly choose their favourite child
The topic of the favourite child remains taboo and inappropriate even though some research suggests that 74 per cent of mothers and 70 per cent of fathers admit to having a favourite child. However, what is largely misunderstood is how this preference develops. The answer is less hurtful than you'd think and has nothing to do with birth order.
Unfortunately, the children are kind of right.
How parents "unknowingly" pick a favourite child
Although parents have preferences among their children, it is normally not who the children think and the favourite child tends to have an impact on the parents' health.
“The very large majority of both mothers and fathers, when asked directly, are willing to say that there is a child that they are … closer to, prefer to confide in, prefer as a caregiver, have more conflict with and have more pride in,” J. Jill Suitor, a professor of sociology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, told TODAY Parents. “Most of the time the children’s perceptions are wrong.”
According to Suitor and her colleagues, who have been looking at familial relationships as part of an ongoing study for the past two decades, this line of inquiry can create conflict in families. It is more prevalent among adult-child and mother bonds, according to the research, since husbands are likely to die before their wives.
“Children are even more likely to think that their parents have these preferences,” she explained. “Adult children think about it quite a bit and it affects their relationships with their siblings and their own psychological well-being.”
However, the child a parent prefers has more to do with the parent's priorities and values than what society considers success. Parents feel closer to the child who shares the same values. Children might think the sibling with the highest education who makes a lot of money takes the prize, but that’s not often the case.
“Moms are much more likely to be closer to children, for example, who go out of their way to be nice to her, who seem very concerned about the family, who help their siblings, than the kid who went to Harvard law school and makes lots of money,” she said. “It’s much more likely that mom’s really proud of whichever child has been either extremely engaged in the family or has again gone out of their way to be helpful.”
Moms also often feel more connected to a child who has faced a lot of challenges. This could be why people think the black sheep is most beloved.
“It’s often the child who has overcome a lot of struggles,” Suitor said. “It may be that kid who has failed out of college twice but they’re on track even at the local community college … Mom is more likely to say she is proud of them.”
Parents' health may be impacted by their favourite child
Suitor said understanding who parents have the closest relationship with has an impact on the quality of their care as they age. Elderly mothers experience better health if their favourite child cares for them.
That makes it more likely that mom goes home with her preferred child after a health emergency, which helps her experience better mental health and faster recovery.
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