Study: Mom's favorite child tends to stay the same

Karl Pillemer

Similarities in personal values and beliefs between an adult child and an older mother keeps that child in favor over the long-term, and that preference can have implications for mothers’ long-term care, reports a new Cornell study.

“Not only does her favoritism affect adult sibling relationships, but also the patterns of caregiving for mothers," said co-author Karl Pillemer, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. “Knowing that favoritism tends to be relatively stable can be helpful to practitioners assisting families with their older relatives.

The study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family (75:5), reports that about three-quarters of the 406 mothers in the study, who were 65-75 years of age at the study’s onset, identified the same child as their favorite and preferred caregiver at the start and end of the seven-year study.

The mother’s perception of similarity between herself and her child was one of the biggest predictors of who remained the favorite, Pillemer said. He added that recent research with co-author Jill Suitor of Purdue University has found that mothers tend to prefer their “favorites” as their caregivers, compared with her other children.

The findings of the new study, co-authored with Suitor and Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University, are based on data from the Within-Family Differences Study, in which data were collected seven years apart from the same mothers.

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, Pillemer said.

In addition to looking at 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 independent mattered much less than sharing personal values, said Suitor, who is a member of the Center on Aging and the Life Course.

"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 said. "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."

On the other hand, identifying what drove changes when a child fell out of favor has proven much more difficult, the researchers noted.

"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 said.

Suitor said, "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, Pillemer and Gilligan are planning to extend the Within-Family Differences Study to include interviewing Baby Boomers about their adult children.

The study, “Continuity and Change in Mothers' Favoritism Toward Offspring in Adulthood,” was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

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