Why youngest children think they are their parents' favourite

It matters more to the baby.
It matters more to the baby. Photo: Shutterstock

Not many parents will admit to having a favourite child, however it's only natural to feel a bond with one more than others at times. And if you have siblings, perhaps there were times you felt like you were the favourite... or most definitely not the favourite.

 A new study published in the Journal of Adolescence says that the idea of the favourite child has far more effect on the youngest child than the eldest and it's all down to perception.

Researchers at Brigham Young University's School of Family Life studied 381 families across three years with two teenage children. Both children and parents answered a variety of questions to determine levels of favouritism. Parents were asked how much warmth and conflict they experienced with their children, and the teens were asked to describe their relationship with their parents.

The researchers concluded that if the youngest child feels they are the favourite and their parents also recognise it, that the bond between them is strengthened. If the youngest child feels they aren't the favourite then the opposite is true.

Where the child is the eldest, the perception of being the favourite child has been found to make no difference to the bond they have with their parents. It's only the youngest it makes a difference to, and it's all about who they use as a social reference first.

It's thought that the youngest child compares themselves most closely to their older sibling, while the eldest child looks to their parents. The younger child's perception of being the favourite was found to be a predictor of less conflict between child and parents and more likely to produce actual favouritism. This social comparison goes a long way towards characterising particular bonds according to birth order.

Assistant professor Alex Jensen explained, "It's not that first-borns don't ever think about their siblings and themselves in reference to them. It's just not as active of a part of their daily life. My guess is it's probably rarer that parents will say to an older sibling, 'Why can't you be more like your younger sibling?' It's more likely to happen the other way around."

While the study was conducted with families who had two children Jensen says that results would likely be similar in larger families.

"If you had to ask me, 'Do we see the same thing with the second born and third born?' I think probably so," Jensen said. "The youngest kid looks up to everybody, the next youngest kid looks up to everyone older than them, and it just kind of goes up the line."

Jensen also adds that the concept of 'treating kids equally' should not be aspired to, rather, tailoring parenting to the individual child.

"When parents are more loving and they're more supportive and consistent with all of the kids, the favouritism tends to not matter as much," Jensen says. "Some parents feel like 'I need to treat them the same.' 

"What I would say is 'No you need to treat them fairly, but not equally.' If you focus on it being okay to treat them differently because they're different people and have different needs, that's OK."