Interestingly, most children interviewed were wrong about their mother's most favored child.

By Better Homes & Gardens
Updated May 07, 2020
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Mother and daughters at restaurant table
Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

Whether we want to admit it, most parents have a favorite (and least favorite) child. (Mom, don't worry, I already know I'm your No. 1.) Although all families are different, there are qualities that are more likely to make you the chosen one.

Jill Suitor, a distinguished professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University, interviewed hundreds of families over 20 years for the Within-Family Differences Study to understand what made mothers prefer certain kids, and how favoritism affects the mental health of both parents and children.

From 2001 to 2003, Suitor and her colleague Karl Pillemer interviewed 566 mothers, ages 75 to 65, and 773 of their adult children. They asked the mother questions about her relationships with her children, including to whom she felt the most emotionally close, with whom she had the most disagreements, in whom she had the most pride, and in whom she was the most disappointed. The researchers also asked the kids how they thought their mother would answer. Then, from 2008 to 2011, Suitor and Pillemer spoke with 420 of the mothers who participated in the first phase and 826 of their children. They talked about the same topics and discovered some interesting findings.

First off, they found that the most favored children often had the same traits. The favored child was most likely to be a girl. (Sutor says in her TED talk about the study that daughters were "overwhelmingly chosen" over sons.) The favorite also shared the same religious, political, and general values as their mom. Finally, the favored child was usually the last born. (And yes, if you're wondering, I happen to fit all three categories.)

Although you probably think you know your mother well, the majority of children were wrong about how their mom felt. "This has really important psychological consequences," Suitor explains in a news release. "If mothers had a serious illness, injury or chronic care need, and received care from a child whom they had not identified as their preferred caregiver, their psychological well-being was substantially lower than if they received care from preferred caregivers. Now, put this together with the fact that most adult children have very inaccurate perceptions of their mother's preferences, and you can see where the risk for mismatches is high." Suitor adds that these perceptions of favoritism can also cause issues between siblings.

- Jill Suitor

Interestingly, both the children who thought they were the most favored and those who believed they were least favored were most likely to show depressive symptoms. "Feeling that mom is really disappointed in you or has more conflict with you is very impactful, and more so as your mom gets older," Suitor says. On the other side, "If mom has cancer or if her best friend has just died of a heart attack, it's harder for those adult daughters who feel they are the ones with whom mom is most close because they can't make everything okay for mom, and that's very stressful," she adds.

Currently, Sutor and Megan Gilligan, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University, are working on a third part of the study. In February, just as the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) outbreak began, they began speaking with the children and the grandchildren of the mothers to learn even more about the perceptions of favoritism over time. As they continue with their work (through phone interviews), Sutor says the family is important as ever right now. "Our respondents talk about a lot of other things changing in their lives, but the general sense of the importance of family seems to be even more pronounced in these uncertain times," she explains. "For most adults, family seems to be a real source of positive in what is, at the moment, a very negative period that we're all going through."

- Jill Suitor

Sutor hopes that her findings, which show that children are usually wrong about their parents playing favorites, will help relationships between parents and children and among siblings. "Maintaining those family ties is always essential, but becomes even more essential when we're going through extremely hard times like we all are now," she says. "Some of the perceptions that you might have about favoritism or disappointment in the family may be getting in the way of maintaining the quality relationships you could have had with those very important people."

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