Family under the microscope Parents treat their kids differently, but often can’t see

Although shockingly little research has been devoted to differential care (because genes were largely assumed to explain sibling difference), it is established that two-thirds of children claim that their parents show some form of preferential treatment. Overall, younger children get more parental warmth and involvement.

A study of five and seven-year-old siblings, and their parents, in 172 families reveals some of the underlying causes of differential treatment. Whereas most of the children claimed they were treated differently by both parents, only a small proportion of either fathers or mothers thought they did. If a child claimed difference, the parent very rarely also reported it. That strongly suggests that parents (understandably) like to think they are fair but it is likely the children know better.

There were big differences between mothers and fathers. Maternal levels of emotional “malaise” (measured as prolonged feelings of sadness, despair, loss of appetite, enjoyment, lethargy and thoughts about suicide) predicted differential treatment. The same was true of emotional anger. Yet neither of these predicted it in fathers.

This may not be surprising. In most families, mothers continue to be more involved in childrearing (time spent present with children, as well as actively engaging with them) than are fathers. Mothers shoulder more of the responsibility for childcare tasks (eg taking children to and from school, keeping dentist appointments). Sheer quantity of involvement alone would make it likely that any tendency to treat their children more differently would come out. Combine that with malaise or anger and it’s easy to see how differential treatment would be greater.

There was also more in chaotic households (noisy, untidy ones with a lack of routine). Under stress, any differential tendencies may be harder to control and are exacerbated.

Overall, single mothers were no more likely to differentiate than ones in couples. However, if they had high levels of anger, they were much more likely to, perhaps for lack of support from a partner.

When all the measured factors were taken into account, they explained 17% of the differential patterns. But the study did not examine the role of parents’ personal histories. It is likely to be critical. Families are like dramas, and the parents’ own childhoods make a very significant contribution to the writing of their scripts. Our reactions to the gender of our children, for example, is hugely influenced by what happened in our original family.

There is abundant evidence that people who feel they were unfavoured as children are at greater risk of problems such as depression and underachievement. It’s important, therefore, for us to listen to our children if they complain about it. While moaning about “unfairness” is a common tactic, it should not be dismissed too casually.

Ask yourself if there are not ways in which your own childhood has affected your reaction to this child. The positive attributions are not usually the problem, though bigging up one child’s academic success at the expense of the other’s is not helpful. Your conviction that your son can be “a malicious little bastard, sometimes” or that your daughter “is a right little madam”, may be true. But part of the reason they are like that could be to do with what you, or a sibling, or a parent, were like back in your childhood. Just making the attribution can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Study of differential treatment: Atzaba-Poria, N and Pike, A, 2008, Child Development, 79, 217–232. More Oliver James at