Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Role of Perceived Maternal Favoritism in Sibling Relations in Midlife

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Role of Perceived Maternal Favoritism in Sibling Relations in Midlife

Article excerpt

Data were collected from 708 adult children nested within 274 later-life families from the Within-Family Differences Study to explore the role of perceived maternal favoritism in the quality of sibling relations in midlife. Mixed-model analyses revealed that regardless of which sibling was favored, perceptions of current favoritism and recollections of favoritism in childhood reduced closeness among siblings. Recollections of maternal favoritism in childhood were more important than perceptions of current favoritism in predicting tension among adult siblings, regardless of age. Taken together, the findings from this investigation are consistent with childhood studies showing that siblings have better relationships when they believe that they are treated equitably by their parents.

Key Words: adult siblings, mother-child relations, parental favoritism, parenting and parenthood, within-family design.

Literature, history, and popular culture abound with stories of siblings vying for their parents' favor, from the Biblical account of jealousy among Jacob's sons to the rivalry between Ray Romano and his brother Robert in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. Such rivalry is fueled by a concern that some children receive an unfair share of their parents' emotional or instrumental resources. Parents' differential treatment of their offspring in childhood and its effects have received substantial attention by scholars across an array of disciplines (for a review, see Suitor, Sechrist, Plikuhn, Pardo, & Pillemer, 2008). In contrast, there has been a dearth of attention to within-family differences in parents' relationships with their children during adulthood.

In the present paper, we extend the study of within-family differences by examining the consequences of perceived parental favoritism on sibling relations in adulthood. Specifically, we investigate whether siblings' closeness and conflict are affected by adult children's perceptions of mothers' current favoritism or their recollections of favoritism in childhood. To address these questions, we use data collected from 708 adult children nested within 274 later-life families as part of the Within-Family Differences Study.

THE ROLE OF PARENTAL FAVORITISM IN SIBLING RELATIONS

The literature on within-family differences in childhood has demonstrated convincingly that parental favoritism has consequences for children's lives. For example, consistent with classic arguments by Freud (1930/1961) and Adler (1956), empirical evidence has shown that being the disfavored child in the family is associated with decreased well-being, whereas being the favored child is associated with increased well-being under some circumstances (Suitor et al., 2008). Favored children are also more likely to garner their parents' interpersonal and financial resources, increasing their likelihood of success as adults over that of their siblings (Hertwig, Davis, & Sulloway, 2002; Steelman & Powell, 1991).

In contrast to most consequences of withinfamily differentiation in childhood, in which some siblings reap benefits whereas others incur losses, the effects on sibling relations appear to be deleterious for both the favored and the unfavored offspring. Studies of young children have demonstrated that siblings feel and express less warmth and more hostility toward one another when parents favor one child over others in the family, regardless of which child is favored (Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1994; McHaIe, Crouter, McGuire, & Updegraff, 1995). The findings regarding this relationship are remarkably consistent, regardless of whether the data were collected from parents or children, or whether the siblings were preschoolers or adolescents (cf. Suitor et al., 2008).

It is not known whether similar processes occur across the life course because there has been little attention to parental favoritism in adulthood. Theories of both equity and social comparison can be used to argue that mothers' favoritism is disruptive to siblings' relationships in adulthood as well as childhood; the two theories, however, predict different patterns. …

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