Preferential parental treatment of siblings

September 17, 2004

Studies of differential parenting, in which parents treat one child differently than another, have traditionally, examined the effects of this parenting style on individual children within families.

In this study, we wanted to examine the family as a system to learn if differential parenting would have a negative influence on all children in the family, not just those subjected to more negative treatment. For instance, imagine a parenting scale of harshness that goes from 0 to 20. Now rank two families, each with three children. In family A, the harshness scores for each child are 5, 10 and 15, while in family B, the scores are 2, 10 and 18. Although the average score is 10 in both families, family B shows higher levels of differential parenting (more variation or larger gaps). Our hypothesis is that all children in family B will exhibit lower levels of adjustment than the children in family A.

We investigated this idea using information collected in three child development studies, two from Canada and one from the U.S. The studies involved a total of 5,488 families, each containing at least two siblings between the ages of 4 and 16.

The studies examined two types of self-reported maternal parenting behavior: positive behaviors, including indicators of warmth, responsiveness and engagement, and negative behaviors, including indicators of anger, harshness and disapproval. In children, the study evaluated two types of emotional-behavioral problems: aggressive-disruptive behavior and problems of depressed mood and anxiety, each of which was rated separately by mothers and teachers.

The two Canadian studies showed a consistent association between the magnitude of differential maternal behavior at the family level and levels of child maladjustment. This association was stronger for self-reported negative maternal behavior (anger, harshness and disapproval) and for ratings of aggressive-disruptive behavior in children.

Although the U.S. study revealed no effects on child behavior, possibly because of a weak parenting measure, it did indicate that differential maternal positive behavior rated by interviewers in the home was associated with lower child scores on a cognitive test.

This study shows that inequitable parental treatment of siblings has the potential to impact adversely not just on the siblings who perceive themselves to be "worse off," but on all siblings in the home. Presumably, this effect comes about when siblings view parenting behavior as unfair and unpredictable. Such a perspective could create resentment in disfavored siblings, uncertainty about the future in favored siblings, and undermine sibling relationships, resulting in higher levels of aggressiveness and anger.

Thus, our study shows how important it is for parents to follow the principle of fairness in dealing with their children. Of course, fair treatment is not the same as identical treatment, and special circumstances or the needs of individual children require different treatment. Siblings are able to accept this when they understand the reasons behind such behavior.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 75, Issue 5, Differential-Maternal Parenting Behaviour: Estimating Within-And Between-Family Effects On Children by M.H. Boyle, McMaster University; J.M. Jenkins, University of Toronto; K. Georgiades, McMaster University; J. Cairney, E. Duku, Center for Addictions and Mental Health; and Y. Racine, McMaster University. Copyright 2004 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

*Please contact Karen Melnyk at SRCD (see above) for author availability and contact information.

Society for Research in Child Development

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