Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Continuity and Change in Mothers' Favoritism toward Offspring in Adulthood

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Continuity and Change in Mothers' Favoritism toward Offspring in Adulthood

Article excerpt

The importance of parental favoritism in childhood and adulthood has been well documented; little is known, however, about changes over time in such within-family differentiation. Drawing on theories of life course processes and developmental psychology, the authors used 7-year panel data collected from 406 older mothers about their relationships with 1,514 adult children to explore patterns of favoritism regarding caregiving and emotional closeness. The findings demonstrated continuity in patterns of mothers' favoritism. Mothers tended to prefer the same children across time, particularly regarding preferred caregivers. It was anticipated that children 's social-structural characteristics, similarity to their mothers, structural position in the family, and support provision to mothers would predict favored child status across time; however, only similarity and support processes were strong and consistent predictors of change and continuity in patterns of mothers' favoritism.

Key Words: intergenerational relations, parentalfavoritism, parent-child relations in adulthood.

Despite a powerful norm of equal treatment of offspring, research over the last two decades has demonstrated convincingly that parents often differentiate among their children in such domains as closeness and support (Suitor, Sechrist, Plikuhn, Pardo, & Pillemer, 2008). Although much of this work has been the province of developmental psychologists, the role of within-family differences in parenting has also been of substantial interest to both sociologists (Conley, 2004; Steelman, Powell, Werum, & Carter, 2002) and economists (Becker, 1991), focusing on the way in which structural factors such as birth order and gender differentially affect the experiences and opportunities of children within the same family.

There is evidence that such patterns continue into adulthood. Early studies by Bedford (1992) and Baker and Daniels (1990) revealed that a substantial proportion of adults felt that their parents favored some children in the family over others, whereas both Aldous, Klaus, and Klein (1985) and Brackbill, Kitch, and Noffsinger (1988) found that most parents reported that they differentiated among their children in adulthood in terms of affection, pride, and disappointment. More recent studies have confirmed that differentiation is common as offspring reach middle age and parents move into their later years (Suitor et ah, 2008; Suitor & Pillemer, 2013).

Research has shown that such within-family differentiation has important consequences for both adult children's psychological well-being and for the quality of sibling relations in adulthood. Specifically, the perception that their parents favor one child over another in adulthood is associated with higher depressive symptoms among adult children (Pillemer, Suitor, Pardo, & Henderson, 2010) as well as greater conflict and less closeness among siblings (Boll, Ferring, & Filipp, 2005; Gilligan, Suitor, Kim, & Pillemer, 2013; Suitor et ah, 2009; Suitor, Gilligan, Johnson, & Pillemer, 2013). Patterns of favoritism also shape the experiences of older mothers when they require assistance. Recent evidence has shown that when older mothers' earlier preferences for particular adult child caregivers are violated when they require assistance several years later, they experience a decline in psychological well-being (Suitor, Gilligan, & Pillemer, 2013). Taken together, this body of research shows that parental favoritism is a salient factor in adult children's well-being and sibling relations in adulthood as well as in mothers' well-being when they require care.

Despite the growing interest in parental favoritism in middle age and beyond, almost all studies have been cross-sectional; therefore, little is known about how parental preference may change over time. In the only published longitudinal research on this topic, Boll, Michels, Ferring, and Filipp (2010) examined continuity of adult children's perceptions of differential treatment by parents over a relatively short time period (2 years). …

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