The Debunker: Do Most Parents Have A Favorite Kid?

by Ken Jennings

Dispelling misinformation is tough when you’re up against the biggest liars of all: Mom and Dad. In his new book Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, Ken Jennings takes on generations of dubious parental wisdom. And this month on Woot, Ken will debunk four bonus parenting myths not found in his book, proving that Mother and Father don’t always know best.

Parental Myth #3: We Love You All Exactly the Same!

This isn’t necessarily a cover-up of Santa Claus proportions. Many parents who claim not to have a favorite child probably sincerely believe that this is true—but they don’t always act accordingly. “I like to say that 99 percent of all parents do have a favorite child, and the other 1 percent are lying through their teeth,” Time science writer Jeffrey Kluger told the Washington Post in 2011, hyping his book The Sibling Effect.

The evidence bears Kluger out. The most-cited result is a 2005 study by Katherine Conger, a family studies professor at UC Davis. She visited three hundred families over three years and videotaped their interactions, and found that 70% of the fathers and 65% of the mothers she studied exhibited a detectable bias toward one child. Other sociologists agree: the preference might be a matter of compatibility, or gender, or behavior, or birth order (firstborns are often favorites, due to what Kluger calls the economic “rule of sunk costs,” but youngest children can be spoiled too) but whatever the cause, most parents have a favorite.

Children are keenly aware of this, Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer told Time. He found that hundreds of the senior citizens in his study were still stung by childhood injustices now eighty years old. “For people who feel that there was great differential treatment in their family, it does have lasting effects.” LFS—Least Favored Status—can lead to anxiety, depression, and, according to one study, a three-point IQ gap. Even the preferred children can suffer when real-life doesn’t offer the same protective bubble of favoritism.

Psychologists say that eliminating favoritism is futile, so parents need to work on hiding it better. They need to learn to discipline kids without ever comparing them, and should make equal time for the individual interest of each. “We love you all exactly the same!” may be a lie, but it’s the kind of comforting lie that keeps families running smoothly.

Quick Quiz: In politics, a “favorite son” is a candidate with strong regional support. Who’s the only person in the last ninety years to win the U.S. Presidency without winning his state of residency?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr user avlxyz. Used under a Creative Commons License.