Playing Favorites

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Of course a mother loves all of her children, but could it be true that she has a favorite?


By Amy Patterson Neubert

Playing Favorites image

“Your kids are your kids and you are going to love all of them, but moms do have favorites and the children are often aware there is a favorite, but they are not always right about who is the favorite,” says Jill Suitor, a Purdue professor of sociology, who has been studying parent and adult-child relationships for more than 30 years.

In an example from one of these studies, while most adult children suspected their parent had a favorite child, only half of the children were correct in actually identifying the favorite. And, mom’s favorite, studies showed, was often determined by which child is most like the mother in terms of similarity of values.

The existence of parental favoritism can have psychological consequences for all of the adult children, regardless of which sibling is favored, altering family dynamics, and affecting the quality of caregiving for older parents.

“There is no training; siblings come together with little preparation to deal with such critical issues,” Suitor says. “Our findings have revealed that parental favoritism is very common in later-life families, and that adult children’s perceptions that their mothers and fathers favor some siblings over others have very negative effects on their relationships with their brothers and sisters, as well as on their own psychological well-being. These perceptions make cooperation among siblings very difficult at the point when their parents need care, which has serious consequences for the parents as well as their offspring.”

“Mom Always Liked You Best”

The appeal and humor in the topic of parental favoritism is validated by a popular 1960s comedy routine by the Smothers Brothers. Their eighth album and well-known comedy bit was called, Mom Always Liked You Best.

“If the Smothers Brothers’ joke about how ‘Mom loved you best’ did not resonate with most people, they would have dropped it,” says Suitor, who also is a member of Purdue’s Center on Aging and the Life Course.

Suitor has been working with Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer since 1985, when they met as post-doctoral fellows at the Family Violence Research Program at University of New Hampshire. At the time, Suitor’s research focused on how married mothers’ return to school affected their family relationships and Pillemer’s research was on elder abuse. They began working on Alzheimer’s disease and related caregiving issues, but over time expanded to look at these interpersonal relationships in all older-adult populations.

“Karl comes from a much larger family than I do, but we have found many of the same dynamics despite differences in the number of siblings we have,” Suitor says. “We were both very interested in what affects parent-child relations because as people say, blood is thicker than water.”

The majority of research about parents and favorite children continues to focus on young children, not older families. Building on their multiple research projects, Suitor and Pillemer, who is now director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, launched the Within Family Differences study in 2001. The study was established at Louisiana State University when Suitor, the principal investigator, was a professor there, and came with her when she joined Purdue in 2004. And in 2006, Suitor brought in Purdue graduate student Megan Gilligan, who is now an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, to collaborate on the research project.

This is the first and largest long-term study looking at favoritism in middle- and later-life families. It is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging.

Thanks to a partnership with the Center for Survey Research at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the scientists were able to interview hundreds of mothers and their adult children (to date, more than 560 multigenerational white and black families have participated, including more than 1,700 family members), and even more importantly, follow them through the years. The different interview points provide rich data about how aging parents who need care cope when relying on care, how children support widowed parents, and how other life events, such as divorce and the recent economic downturn, affect individual relationships.

The project allowed Suitor to combine aspects of her previous work on parent-adult child relations, caregiving, bereavement, marital quality, and social support networks in a bigger context. No matter the topic, life event or challenge, the effects of a parent favoring one child can be great and significantly influence family dynamics.

“Prior to our Within Family Differences study, I had researched each of these aspects of family relations as separate entities without directly taking into consideration how much they affect one another,” she says. “But the reality is that life events experienced by any member of the family ripple out to affect the lives and relationships of all members of multiple generations of the family.”

Examples of what Suitor and the team have studied as part of this project include perceptions of maternal favoritism, favoritism and tension among siblings, how mothers are stressed when their preferred child does not care for them, the continuity of maternal favoritism across time, why mothers favor adult daughters over adult sons, the role of birth order, and how widowhood changes these relationships. They also have looked at perceived favoritism by fathers, and found that when fathers play favorites it creates even greater sibling conflict than when mothers do so. This was especially true with daughters and their fathers.

Family favorites

With more than 100 publications, and just as many presentations, Suitor is a well-known scholar in sociological issues related to families, especially the topic of favorites. And it’s not unusual at academic presentations for her colleagues to pull her aside and provide personal anecdotes from their own family relations and experience.

“What this says to me is that we are studying a phenomenon that touches most people in a very personal way,” Suitor says. “Parent-child relations, siblings relations, and the presence of parental favoritism are issues that concern them a great deal in their own lives.”

Adult siblings often pour out their hearts in newspaper’s advice columns while seeking solutions to coping with not being mom’s favorite or the fallout from such perceptions. People write about feuds and hurt feelings that have lasted years, or decades. It is and will continue to be a topic that will be more familiar to people as everyone lives longer.

But parental favoritism in adulthood is not just about family drama or an entertaining comedy sketch. These researchers demonstrate that it also can affect caregiving, mental health, and older adult issues.

Understanding patterns and consequences of favoritism can inform healthcare providers who are assisting with the discharge of a parent when attempting to determine the best plan of care; in particular, it can help them to better understand what the parent wants and recognize the importance of meeting these preferences to provide an optimal environment for recovery.

“There are consequences of favoritism and they can greatly affect people’s psychological well-being. That is really powerful and can greatly impact families,” says Gilligan who earned her master’s and doctorate degrees from sociology and gerontology in 2008 and 2013 respectively.

The quality of the relationship between the parent and child in such caregiving situations can influence well-being based on how the parent feels about appearing incompetent or struggling with decisions in front of the child. If the relationship was strained or the parent didn’t feel comfortable with that child as caregiver, would the parent be heard by that child when voicing concerns about their care preferences?

When the mother receives care from a child who is not the preferred child, it is very stressful and a mother’s psychological well-being may decline. A preferred child would be the person to whom the mother is most emotionally close and whom she seeks as a confidant because that child shares their mother’s values. Those who were cared for by another child reported more depressive symptoms, such as sadness, loneliness, and sleep disturbances.

“To whom do you want to give up control if you are not able to make decisions for your own care, or are fearful that healthcare workers might not adhere to your wishes?” Suitor says. “To someone who has the same outlook on life and who you think is very much like you, and, therefore, can respond to your needs and be a source of reassuring support.”

Playing Favorites image

Sibling rivalry

A reoccurring finding is that siblings were considered the greatest source of support but also the greatest source of stress during caregiving.

“Caregiving is an extremely difficult time in siblings’ lives,” Suitor says.

The sibling doing the caregiving may feel they are often the focus of their siblings’ criticism. The child taking care of the parent may feel as if they are doing the most or are left with too many decisions on their own. Or they are resented by the siblings if they were preferred to be the caregiver. The children who are not the primary caregivers may feel left out or frustrated that their suggestions are not taken.

“All of a sudden they are required to make very consequential decisions together when they normally don’t make any decisions together,” Suitor says. “All of this at a time that is very anxious for everyone. Tension is likely to increase.”

And such caregiving situations and family relations are likely to become more common with the larger older parent population of Baby Boomers.

Gilligan who focuses on parent-child and sibling relationships in the middle and later years, is especially interested in life events leading to estrangement. Such discord is something that captured her attention when listening to interviews of the families in the Within Family Differences study and discovering that in some families even though most members were close there was one adult child who was very distant. She wants to study how life events lead to estrangement as well as examine patterns of estrangement across time.

The next step for this research team is planning an extension of the Within Family Differences study that will allow them to also focus on the relationship between the adult children, many who are Baby Boomers, and their own young adult children, as well as on their relationships with their older parents.

“There are several recent demographic changes that suggest that relations between and within generations may become even more salient in individuals’ lives,” Gilligan says. ”In particular, we are witnessing dramatic increases in life expectancy, which means that most individuals can expect to spend longer periods of time with their family members, including parents, children, siblings, spouses, and grandparents.”

“Further, recent changes in patterns of marriage and divorce and child-bearing might mean that these relationships may have growing significance in individual’s lives. For example, single or divorced individuals may rely heavily on their parents or siblings for support. In addition, increases in divorce and remarriage mean that families will have to navigate and negotiate these increasingly complex relationships.”

The research team also is interested in expanding culturally from studying White and African American families to include a large sample of Hispanic families. Gilligan plans to collect pilot data for this new component of the study in Iowa.

When asked why this collaboration works so well, Suitor responded that, “The three of us share a strong commitment to sociology as a science,” Suitor says, “And that includes being concerned with making the findings of our research accessible to the broader community of lay people and practitioners, as well as to other basic scientists. We are not clinicians, but I think there are lessons that can be learned from our work that can be put to use in conversations that families have about caregiving that could help them coordinate and avoid conflict.”

Amy Patterson Neubert (LA’99, MS LA’08) is a health sciences and news writer for Purdue’s Office of Marketing and Media. Illustrations by Whitney Sherman.