Is favorite child a better caregiver?


By Sondra Shapiro

It seems there’s a universal truth in the “Mom always liked you best” quip Tommy Smothers directed at his brother Dick.

Studies over the last few years show that parents do have favorites among their children.

According to the latest research — Purdue University’s Within-Family Differences Study — this favoritism carries over to old age when it comes to mothers and who they want to provide them with care. Data compiled over seven years from 406 mothers, ages 65 to 75, about their relationships with 1,514 adult children found that three quarters of the mothers said they were closer emotionally to one of their children than the others.

Though fathers were also involved at the start of the study, nearly half of them passed away by the time the study concluded, so the researchers decided not to include fathers, according to one of the authors, Jill Suitor, professor of sociology. Suitor has been studying older parent relationships with adult children for nearly 30 years.

Researchers found that from the start to the finish of the study, the favorite child remained the same. “Favoritism matters because it affects adult sibling relationships and caregiving patterns and outcomes for mothers, and now we know that whom a mother favors is not likely to change,” Suitor said, adding that this knowledge will be helpful to professionals when putting together a care plan.

“One of the biggest predictors of who remained the favorite was a mother’s perception of similarity between herself and her child,” said Megan Gilligan, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Iowa State University and a former Purdue graduate student who was a collaborator on the project. “Mothers were likely to continue to prefer children who they perceived were similar to them in their beliefs and values, as well as to prefer children who had cared for them before,” she said.

Daughters were shown as the favorite, a finding that did not surprise the researchers since the mother-daughter connection “has been shown in previous research to typically be the strongest, closest and most supportive parent-child relationship.”

sshapiro_headshotThis preference also has negative consequences when an elderly mother cannot be near the favorite child during an illness or following an injury. The authors of the study have found in other studies that there is greater likelihood of depression.

“These mothers are saying that if I can’t make my own decisions involving my life then who can best make these decisions for me? Who thinks like I do?” Suitor said. “Who has the same vision in life that I do, has a pretty good sense of what I would do? This is incredibly important with issues related to caregiving, and that is why understanding these family dynamics is so important.”

The researchers suggest that doctors, hospital staff and family members need to take those parental preferences into account when decisions are made about caregiving issues.

Surely this favoritism should be one of the considerations, but it certainly adds to the already challenging parent-care responsibility. Logically it makes sense that the child who lives closest, has the most available time to squeeze in for parent care, is emotionally equipped and/or has a grasp of financial or health needs should be equally considered. In a perfect world, each child would be involved in care, bringing his and her individual skills. Yet emotions seem to trump everything, according to this study.

Anecdotally, this type of favoritism is not surprising. I see it in many families. Even so, it stands to reason that just because a child may be a favorite, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is best suited to the role of caregiver. Perhaps this works emotionally, but ever the pragmatist, I still think the emotional bond should be weighed case by case.

The role of caregiver is a huge challenge. Families should meet and engage in frank discussions about care. These conversations should always be done before a crisis. Everything should be put on the table. Ideally, the burden should not be on any one person, though that is often the case.

Even if mother always likes one child best, these new statistics should be used as part of a parent-care plan.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at And follow her online at, or