Parental differential treatment is the degree to which parents treat each child in the family differently. Studies have found that most parents report that they have to be a different parent to each of their children (Dunn and Plomin 1990; McGuire 2002). For instance, parents often indicate that one child needs more attention compared to the siblings. This does not necessarily mean that one child is being favored over the others. Parents who love their children equally may treat them differently to help each child develop properly. Favoritism is a specific type of differential treatment; it occurs when one child receives more positive treatment (e.g., more affection or more toys) compared to his or her siblings.
Studies of families in the United States and Great Britain have shown that parental differential treatment is linked to children's temperament characteristics. For instance, emotional children tend to receive more attention from their parents compared to their calmer siblings. Parents also respond to each child's age, sex, and, sometimes, position in the family (that is, birth order). For example, parents do not expect the same degree of obedience from a one-year-old child and her three-yearold brother. It is considered standard for parents to react to children's unique personalities and different developmental levels.
Parental differential treatment is also associated with children's behavior problems, at least in Western societies. Children who receive more parental discipline and less parental warmth relative to their sibling have more adjustment problems compared to children in other family environments. It cannot be assumed that parental differential treatment always causes children's adjustment problems, because children who are disruptive often elicit negative parental behavior. Researchers have examined families over time; findings from these studies suggest that both the parents and the children contribute to this family dynamic (Reiss et al. 2000).
Children's own perceptions of parental differential treatment matter. In fact, siblings' perceptions of fairness are associated with their self-esteem to a greater degree than parental reports or observations of parental differential treatment. Many school-aged children and adolescents report that parental differential treatment is fair. Children and teenagers take into consideration personal differences between the siblings (e.g., age differences and personality factors) and family circumstances when considering the appropriateness of their parents' behavior. It is when children believe that one child is being favored that parental behavior is associated with adjustment problems.
The correlates and consequences of parental differential treatment and favoritism differ by family context. For instance, some studies have investigated parental differential treatment in families in which the younger sibling has a disability compared to families that contained two children with no known handicaps. In these families, older siblings who spent more time with their mothers compared to their disabled siblings showed higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to older siblings in the other family contexts. This is the opposite of the pattern typically found in studies of differential treatment by parents. These findings suggest that the nature of parental differential treatment and favoritism varies across cultures; little research, however, has been conducted comparing children from different countries or subcultures within one country.
Dunn, J., and Plomin, R. (1990). Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different. New York: Basic Books.
McGuire, S. (2002). "Nonshared Environment Research: What Is It and Where Is It Going?" Marriage and Family Review 3. Forthcoming.
Reiss, D.; Neiderhiser, J.; Hetherington, E. M.; and Plomin, R. (2000). The Relationship Code. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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