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Purdue Researcher Finds Being Mom's Favorite Comes With Baggage

Rusty Clark

Being mom’s favorite might sound great – but Purdue social scientists have discovered it sometimes comes with a large price.

Researchers studied families for 16 years as part of the longitudinal Within Family Differences Study, which explores relationships among different generations of families. Their most recent findings show adult children who perceive themselves as a mother’s favorite are more likely to exhibit signs of depression.

Purdue sociology professor Jill Suitor, one of the authors of the study along with Megan Gilligan (Iowa State) and Karl Pillemer (Cornell), says the findings might be the result of increased strife between the identified sibling and any brothers or sisters. She says parental caretaking responsibilities often fall to a favored child, which increases stress and angst.

"Being close to your mom is usually a pretty good thing," she says, "but perceiving yourself as a child who’s most emotionally close to your mom when your mom is in her early 80s and needing care may have somewhat different implications.

"It’s that combination," she continues. "You may feel like you have the most responsibility,  and maybe you’re concerned you’re not going to be able to meet those expectations. And also you’re likely to have more conflict with your siblings."

Researchers make an effort to distinguish between favoritism and pride. That is, the child mom is most proud of isn’t necessarily the one she likes the best.  Suitor says the study defines “favoritism” more by shared values and emotional closeness.

The study finds the phenomenon occurs more acutely in black families, which authors think might be due to the fact that demographic has been shown to place a higher value on family cohesion.

Suitor says the research could be useful for psychologists working with families in the future, and may help when it comes to drafting advance directives and caregiving plans for aging parents.

The researchers hope to do a similar study in the future looking at questions related to fathers and favoritism. 

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