Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Siblings' Differential Treatment in Mexican American Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Siblings' Differential Treatment in Mexican American Families

Article excerpt

We investigated the patterns and correlates of parents' differential treatment of adolescent siblings in 246 two-parent Mexican American families. In home interviews, siblings rated 7 domains of differential treatment (e.g., privileges, chores, warmth) as well as their adjustment and perceptions of parental acceptance and fairness, and both parents and adolescents reported on cultural dynamics. More gender-typed patterns of differential treatment were evident when parents were more oriented to Mexican than Anglo culture. The links between differential treatment and youth reports of adjustment, parental acceptance, and parental fairness were moderated by adolescents' familism values, particularly for older siblings: Differential treatment was linked more strongly to adjustment and parent-youth relationship problems when youth reported lower levels of familism.

Key Words: culture, differential treatment, gender, Mexican American families, siblings.

Balancing the different and sometimes competing needs and interests of siblings is a significant childrearing challenge for parents. Because children differ in many ways-such as in their personalities, interests, abilities, and maturity levels-parents may have good reasons for treating their offspring differently. An array of studies, however, has established a link between parents' differential treatment and both child and adolescent adjustment problems and poor family relationships (e.g., Brody, Stoneman, & McCoy, 1992; Conger & Conger, 1994; Stocker, Dunn, & Plomin, 1989). As Adler explained in his theory of individual psychology (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956), children experience feelings of rivalry, hostility, and low self-esteem when their parents treat a sibling more favorably, and they may act out in an effort to garner their fair share of parental attention and family resources. In contrast, children who experience more favorable treatment develop a more positive sense of self. Grounded in an analytic tradition, the phenomena of differential treatment, sibling comparison, and self-development were proposed originally as universal developmental and family dynamics (Ansbacher & Ansbacher).

A limitation of Adler's theory and the empirical research that has been conducted more recently on parents' differential treatment and its implications for siblings is its almost exclusive focus on majority culture (European American) families. In such families, democratic ideals set a standard for equal treatment of siblings (Parsons, 1974/1942), and an ethos of individualism promotes competition among siblings for preferred or favored status (Nuckolls, 1993). A cultural-ecological perspective, however, builds on an ecological framework to outline the ways in which cultural forces shape family beliefs, values, and practices (Spencer, 1995). For instance, the democratic ideal of equal treatment of siblings contrasts sharply with cultural anthropologists' descriptions of family processes in non-Western societies, where siblings' family roles are highly differentiated by gender and age (e.g., Nuckolls; Weisner, 1993). These reports suggest that equal treatment of siblings is neither the norm nor the ideal in many societies; thus, examining whether and how parents' patterns of differential treatment are linked to their cultural orientations is an important topic for research on siblings' family experiences.

A second component of Adlerian theory and the related neosocial comparison theories that have provided a framework for research on the implications of differential treatment for siblings (e.g., Suls & Wheeler, 2000; Tesser, 1980) is a focus on "ego enhancement associated with being better off than others" (Suls & Wheeler, p. 10). Although portrayed as normative in the context of these theoretical perspectives, a motivation toward self-enhancement at the expense of another group member may be incongruent with the values of communally oriented cultures wherein the needs and interests of the group are emphasized over those of the individual (e. …

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