The New York Times Magazine
Sunday, December 15, 2002
By SUSAN BURTON
It's an old story. Bad things happen when parents favor one child over the others. In the Bible, Joseph's 11 brothers resent that he gets all their father's attention -- and a designer coat -- so one afternoon they sell him to a slave trader.
To avoid such a distressing outcome, parents have long been told there's only one thing to do: treat their children exactly equally. ''It's the cartoon stereotype: a mom pouring juice to the exact same level in different cups for different kids,'' says Laurie Kramer, professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But in a new study of family dynamics, Kramer has found compelling evidence against obsessively even-steven parenting. In fact, her research indicates that treating kids unequally can benefit their mental health.
For a study published in the September issue of The Journal of Family Psychology, Kramer and other researchers interviewed 135 Midwestern families. What they found is that kids don't mind if their parents play favorites, as long as they do it fairly. A child isn't necessarily wounded if, say, her mother praises her sister more -- as long as she thinks her sister really deserves more praise -- or if her brother is allowed to do whatever he wants while she is being punished -- as long as she agrees that he has been good and she has been bad. Surprisingly, in three-quarters of all cases in which there was preferential parental treatment, the children judged things as fair. This fact, the authors wrote, ''highlights the notion that children are generally tolerant of parents' unequal treatment of siblings.''
In fact, the study said, ''78 to 80 percent of children who reported that their sibling received more affection from their parents than they did thought that this situation was fair.'' Paradoxically, the child who feels favored is sometimes the one who suffers, from what Kramer's research colleague Amanda Kowal of the University of Missouri-Columbia calls the ''golden child'' syndrome. If the favored child feels her perks are unearned, she may develop internalized behavioral problems, like anxiety and withdrawal: the standard afflictions of the overachiever.
Recognizing that it's O.K. to respond to children differently can be a relief to parents. ''This belief that you should try to treat children equally can be disheartening,'' Kowal says.