The Problem with Parental Favoritism

Daniel A. Cox February 10, 2022

A child looks through a window of a car on a rainy day.

There is no shortage of advice for parents. The Internet is awash with parenting tips, tactics, and strategies to meet every conceivable exigency. But for all the varying recommendations provided to parents, perhaps one of the most critical is something to be avoided—picking favorites.

A new survey suggests that parental favoritism, or even the perception of favoritism, can have far-reaching negative consequences. The Survey Center on American Life’s new report “Emerging Trends and Enduring Patterns in American family life” finds that Americans raised in families in which they believe their parents had a favorite child felt lonelier and less connected to their siblings than those who said their parents did not pick favorites.

Studies have found that most parents exhibit preferential treatment toward one child from time to time, but we found that 40 percent of Americans raised with siblings believe their parents had a favorite child. What’s more, this pattern varies little across generations. Thirty-eight percent of Baby Boomers report their parents had a favorite compared to 40 percent of Americans who belong to Generation Z.

Parental favoritism is associated with a host of negative outcomes. Americans who grew up in families with favorites are more than twice as likely to report they felt lonely at least once a week growing up (40 percent vs. 18 percent).

This behavior may fuel resentment between siblings—sibling rivalry. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans who grew up in families where there was no favorite child say they had a very close relationship with their sibling when growing up. Less than one-third (30 percent) of those who believe their parents had a preferred child report having a very close relationship with their siblings.

By picking favorites, parents may also be damaging their own relationships with their children. Growing up, Americans who perceived parental favoritism were far less likely to seek support from a family member, particularly a parent, when they have a problem. Close to half (46 percent) of Americans who say their parents did not pick favorites report that they turned to their mother when dealing with a personal problem. Substantially fewer (32 percent) of those raised in families with a favorite child report turning to their mother for support.

For men, parental favoritism may mean having no one to lean on. Nearly one in five (19 percent) men raised in families where there was a favorite child say they had no one they could go to for help, compared to just 10 percent of those who grew up in households without parental favoritism.

Research has also shown that parental favoritism is universally problematic, and not just for those who aren’t the favorite. Americans who say they were their parents’ favorite child are less likely to report being satisfied with the relationship they have with their siblings than those who say their parents did not pick favorites (42 percent vs. 58 percent, respectively).

And these early experiences can have long-term effects. Americans who report their parents had a favorite child are much more likely to report that they are currently estranged from a family member as an adult. Nearly one in three (30 percent) Americans raised in households with a favorite child say they have stopped talking to a family member. This experience is significantly less common among those who report their parents had no favorites— only 17 percent report being estranged from a family member.

Even if parents seek to avoid the perception that they have favorites, it’s not always so easy. Previous research suggests that parents experiencing stressful situations are less mindful of their own problematic behavior. One social psychologist noted that favoritism is more likely “when parents are under a great deal of stress (e.g., marital problems, financial worries). In these cases, parents may be unable to inhibit their true feelings or monitor how fair they're behaving.”

Divorce, which puts a considerable strain on parents, may increase perceptions of parental favoritism. Americans who report being raised by divorced parents are far more likely to perceive favoritism. More than half (51 percent) of Americans raised by divorced parents say their parents had a favorite child, compared to 38 percent of Americans whose parents were married.

There is no easy or obvious way for parents avoid to perceptions of favoritism, although the Internet likely has a few suggestions. But given how prevalent it is among families, and how damaging it is to relationships, parents would do well to be mindful. As most parents are readily aware, kids don’t miss much.

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