“That’s not fair,” is a complaint many parents often hear. Handling the sentiment expressed by a child that their treatment is not the same as a sibling’s is a common conundrum of parenthood. But while the frequency of such instances might suggest their triviality, a recent study provides evidence that differential treatment employed by parents might not be just a petty claim and that its effects might be more significant than expected.
Dr. Alexander Jensen, a professor in the School of Family Life at BYU, recently published the study in The Journal of Gerontology. Jensen found that the practice of differential treatment by parents is correlated with how their parents currently treat them.
To be Like or not to be Like, That is the Question
In other words, Jensen hypothesized that current parents who experience preferential treatment of one sibling over another, or who perceive such treatment, would either:
- treat each of their children differently
- treat each of their children the same, in contradiction to their own experience or perceptions. In other words, those who are exposed to preferential treatment would, in contrast, use little to no preferential treatment with their own children.
Jensen found that some parents do, in fact, treat their children differentially. Not only that, he found that such treatment often correlated with the age of the current parent. In other words:
- Middle-aged parents tended to model the patterns of differential treatment that their fathers exhibited.
- Middle-aged men who experienced differential treatment from their parents in recent years tended to exhibit lower differential treatment toward their own children.
- Differential treatment tended to be more evident when it was done tangibly (e.g., financially) as opposed to intangibly (e.g.: emotionally).
Past research done by other scholars indicated that when parents treated each of their children differently, they fostered feelings of injustice, competition, and comparison among siblings, with both favored and less favored offspring exhibiting poorer mental health and experiencing less supportive familial relationships as a result.
“Because of these longstanding implications,” says Jensen, “it is critical to discover the reasons why parents treat their children differently.”
Additionally, he says: “It is possible that as families develop and grow and siblings move into middle adulthood, their individual and separate lives pull them in different directions and thus they may be less aware of discrepant treatment based on communication or emotional closeness. But, differences based on money and practical support may still be apparent despite their diverging lives from their siblings. Alternately, it is possible that parents truly may be trying to meet the divergent needs of their offspring who are sometimes in seemingly different life stages and in need of varying levels of support.”
Why does it matter?
While many previous studies have looked at other causal factors, Jensen’s research was the first to look at the cross-generational aspects of preferential treatment in parenting. Understanding the causes of differential treatment could help to better decrease its usage and the negative effects it will on children and families in the future.