Moms don’t pick new ‘favorites’

"Mothers were likely to continue to prefer children who they perceived were similar to them in their beliefs and values, as well as to prefer children who had cared for them before," says Megan Gilligan. (Credit: Evan Long/Flickr)

If you’ve never been your mom’s favorite child, that likely won’t change later in life.

“Favoritism matters because it affects adult sibling relationships and caregiving patterns and outcomes for mothers, and now we know that who a mother favors is not likely to change,” says Jill Suitor, professor of sociology at Purdue University.

“Knowing that favoritism, particularly regarding caregiving, is relatively stable will be helpful for practitioners when designing arrangements that are going to work best for moms.”


For a new study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, approximately three-quarters of mothers said that the child they favored as their preferred caregiver at the start of the study was the same child they favored seven years later.

“One of the biggest predictors of who remained the favorite was mother’s perception of similarity between herself and her child,” says Megan Gilligan, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Iowa State University and a former Purdue graduate student who is a collaborator on the project.

“Mothers were likely to continue to prefer children who they perceived were similar to them in their beliefs and values, as well as to prefer children who had cared for them before.”

Researchers based their findings on the Within-Family Differences Study in which data were collected seven years apart from the same 406 mothers, ages 65-75.

Mother-daughter connection

Gender similarity also was a consistent factor to show long-term favoritism, which is not surprising because the mother-daughter connection has been shown in previous research to typically be the strongest, closest, and most supportive parent-child relationship.

In addition to looking at the similarity of personal values, the researchers also looked at whether a child’s financial independence, adult roles as a spouse or parent themselves, consistent employment, and lawful behavior influenced which child remained the favorite.

What was surprising is that whether a child was married, divorced, or achieved independence, mattered much less than sharing personal values, Suitor says.

“These mothers are saying that if I can’t make my own decisions involving my life then who can best make these decisions for me? Who thinks like I do?” Suitor says.

“Who has the same vision in life that I do, has a pretty good sense of what I would do? This is incredibly important with issues related to caregiving, and that is why understanding these family dynamics is so important.”

While the importance similarity played in explaining why a mother’s favorite child remained the same across the study, it was much harder to identify what drove changes when a child fell out of favor.

“One of the few predictors of changes was when children stopped engaging in deviant behaviors, such as substance abuse, during the seven years, and then their mothers were more likely to choose them as the children to whom they were most emotionally close,” Gilligan says.

“This is an interesting change because if a child engaged in deviant behaviors seven years ago but then stopped they were even more likely to be chosen than were siblings who never engaged in deviant behaviors,” Suitor says.

Source: Purdue University