Academic journal article Family Relations

The Family Correlates of Maternal and Paternal Perceptions of Differential Treatment in Early Childhood

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Family Correlates of Maternal and Paternal Perceptions of Differential Treatment in Early Childhood

Article excerpt

Family patterns of differential parental treatment were examined for both mothers and fathers of preschool-aged siblings in an effort to determine (I ) whether parents "favored" the younger sibling over the older sibling; (2) whether similar distributions of differential treatment emerged across the affection, control and favoritism dimensions of parenting; and (3) whether different correlates of family functioning emerged across different family constellations of differential parental treatment. Most parents reported treating their two children equally and did not favor younger children over their older siblings. In the case of differential control, mothers reported disciplining older siblings more than a younger brother or sister. Mothers' reports of differential favoritism did not parallel their reports of differential affection and control, yet there was an association between differential paternal favoritism and differential enjoyment. Congruent patterns of differential treatment (i.e., mothers and fathers showed the same pattern) were the most frequent. Optimal family functioning was not always associated with equal treatment of siblings.

Key Words: differential treatment, family systems, fathers, siblings

The extensive literature documenting the associations between children's behavior problems, marital conflict, and coercive parenting (see Cummings & Davies, 1994; Patterson, 1982) underscores the importance of family interaction for the young child's psychological adjustment. One of the most striking findings from recent behavioral genetic research, however, suggests that there are vast differences between siblings raised in the same family with regard to personality outcomes and psychopathology (Dunn & Plomin, 1990; Plomin & Daniels, 1987). Indeed, siblings who are raised in the same family are often as different from one another on individual outcomes as they are from children raised in different families (Plomin, Chipeur, & Neiderhiser, 1994; Plomin & Daniels, 1987). Moreover, any similarities noted between siblings with respect to psychological outcomes are believed to be genetic in origin while differences between siblings are believed to be due largely to nonshared environmental influences (i.e., those aspects of the environment experienced differently by siblings). Four possible sources of the nonshared environment are thought to account for sibling differences within families: (a) differential parental treatment (i.e., differences in how a parent treats both children); (b) differential sibling experience (i.e., the different experiences the two children provide for one another); (3) differential peer experiences (i.e., siblings have different peer groups); and (4) accidents and illnesses unique to the individual (see Plomin & Daniels, 1987).

In an effort to explore the various ways that differential experiences within the family are correlated with sibling differences, several investigators have focused on differential maternal treatment. Not only do mothers respond to and control their older and younger children differently, but this difference in maternal treatment is related to more sibling antagonism and less prosocial behavior in the sibling relationship (Brody, Stoneman, & Burke, 1987; Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992a; Bryant & Crockenberg, 1980; Hetherington, 1988; Stocker, Dunn, & Plomin, 1989; Volling & Belsky, 1992), and to greater adjustment difficulties for the "less favored" child (Dunn, Stocker, & Plomin, 1990; McGuire, Dunn, & Plomin, 1995; Stocker, 1993, 1995). Although less extensively studied, current evidence suggests that fathers also treat the older and younger child differently, and differential paternal treatment is also related to the quality of sibling interaction (Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992a; Volling & Belsky, 1992) and sibling adjustment outcomes (Stocker, 1995).

Interestingly, several studies report that both parents tend to direct more affection, control, and responsive behavior to the younger child than the older child (Brody et al. …

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