Man walks into a column, no.46: Favouritism

Did your parents love you the most? If you are an only child this question makes no sense (one would hope, I guess they may’ve been particularly attached to the family dog) and this post will probably be of no interest: you may be excused, please wait in the corridor while the normal children enjoy their popular science lesson (with apologies to blog-brother Rich, who I’ve just remembered is an only child, but listen: I don’t make the rules).

Writing in TIME magazine last week (subscription only), scientist-in-residence Jeffrey Kluger (author of the book that inspired the film Apollo 13, factfans) takes us on a diverting tour of the scientific evidence that exposes Mom and Dad as liars when they claim ‘don’t be ridiculous dear, of course we don’t have a favourite’, thereby ensuring that the arguments in the Copestake family homestead this Christmas will have added intellectual heft (it doesn’t take much: my family may or may not be as ‘intellectual’ as the next, just not in late December).

So in the festive spirit of sharing here is a selection of the most memorable facts about favouritism; choose which apply best to your own sibling situation and deploy with glee just at the point that your brother or sister thinks they have succeeded in making the most attention-grabbing contribution to the day.

  • One of the most famous recent studies of parental favouritism was conducted in 2005, when a professor from the University of California at Davis, Katherine Conger, assembled a set of 384 sibling pairs and visited them and their parents three times over three years. Through videotaped observation, including of how conflictual situations were resolved, Professor Conger concluded that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one.
  • First children have more parental time, care and invested in them – as Ben Dattner from New York University puts it parents ‘build up a sort of equity in firstborns’, how sweet – and as a result of being the exclusive focus of parental attention, firstborns are usually cleverer. One 2007 Norwegian study showed firstborn children have a three point IQ advantage over later siblings.
  • For those of you who are, like me, from tripartite sibling alliances: gender is apparently the key driver of who’s the favourite. First- and last-born children usually come out on top, middle kids have little chance; this is especially the case in all-boy or all-girl sets, because the one in the middle doesn’t stand out, but also holds for boy-boy-girl sequences and girl-girl-boy families. On the other hand if it’s a boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl trilogy then gender trumps everything, and the middle child will be favourite.
  • If you are a parent you may think you don’t have a favourite but you are deluding yourself: there are serious facts involved here and facts are never wrong. The key is keeping your favouritism under wraps: even if your children see through your fiendish attempts to overcome your inbuilt preference, the fact that you’re trying allows your children to pretend to believe you. Or something. I think basically the message is that happy families are built on a web of lies.
  • If having digested these facts and concluded that there’s no conceivable way you might be the fave (thereby confirming what you always suspected) then all is not lost. As Kluger puts it, the biggest risk may be that ‘when you spend your early life enjoying the huzzahs of your parents, you may be unprepared for a larger society in which you’re just one young adult out of many, with the special charms Mom and Dad saw in you invisible to everyone else’.
  • And in any case you could become one of the world’s greatest ever novelists. Charles Dickens suffered from ‘least favoured status’ (it has its own acronym, which I refuse to use), and wrote about how he never got over it: ‘My whole nature was so penetrated by the grief and humiliation…’ (Charles worked in a bootblacking factory whilst his older sister went to school) ‘…that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I wander desolate back to that time in my life’.

If, having launched your favouritism fact bomb, your brother, sister, aunt, child or grandparent retorts with ‘where’s the evidence for that though’, point out that serious American academics with serious academic names like Frank Sulloway from the University of California, Berkeley and Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire are on your side.

And in case you were wondering, I am the eldest of three, with a younger brother and even younger sister. My sister is definitely the favourite but only because she’s a girl.


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