Playing Favorites: Why Mom Likes You (or One of Your Siblings) Best

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There aren’t a lot of ironclad rules of family life, but here’s one: No matter how much your parents deny it — and here’s betting they deny it a lot — they have a favorite child. And if you’re a parent, so do you.

The golden child may be the oldest one, unless it’s the youngest. It may be the toughest one, unless it’s the most sensitive. It’s not even necessary that Mom and Dad have the same favorite — and typically they don’t.

One oft-cited study showed that about 70% of fathers and 65% of mothers exhibit a preference for one child or another. For fathers, it’s most often the youngest girl; for mothers, it’s typically the oldest boy. And remember, the key here is the exhibited preference. Since parents do such a good job of concealing any bias — especially when a scientist is watching — the numbers are almost certainly a good deal higher.

If it’s any consolation for Mom and Dad — to say nothing of the unfavored kids — favoritism is hardwired into our species. Since families, at their evolutionary essence, exist principally as a way to get as many genes as possible into the next generation, we’re programmed to place our bets on the kids who stand the greatest chance of being reproductively successful.

Every parent defines the lucky child differently: for some the choice is based on beauty, for others brains, for others birth order. Once the selection is made, extra attention and other goodies are subtly steered that child’s way, even if parents don’t realize they’re doing it.  Of course humans, unlike other animals, bring a whole suite of other, gentler, considerations into play: love, loyalty, compassion, joy, and that can balance the scales some, though never entirely.

This week’s TIME cover story explores the complexities of favoritism — how it came to be, how it’s expressed, the harm it can do to both favored and unfavored kids, and what we can do about it. It’s available to subscribers here.

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