From the very beginning, younger siblings are set up to play the comparison game thanks to the benchmarks set by their big brothers or sisters. When the little ones sense they are measuring up and winning parental approval, the bond with their mothers and fathers are strengthened. But if they feel they are falling short of expectations, those relationships suffer. Older siblings, on the other hand, aren’t as affected by perceptions of their parents’ favorite child, according to new research.
The lesson: Youngest children do better when they feel like their parents’ favorite while older children don’t care as much.
“It’s not that first-borns don’t ever think about their siblings and themselves in reference to them,” says BYU School of Family Life assistant professor Alex Jensen, a co-author of the study. “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.”
For the study, researchers tracked parents’ treatments of their first- and second-born children in 381 families throughout the course of three years. According to the findings published in Journal of Adolescence, “Analyses revealed that siblings’ perceptions of being favored predicted less conflict with and greater warmth from both mothers and fathers, primarily for secondborn adolescents.”
Jensen attributes this to social comparison—aka, the urge to match or beat someone else’s performance, which is something oldest children aren’t as burdened by.
Even though they just examined families with two children, Jensen says he thinks the findings would apply to larger families. “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.”
As for what that means for parents, Jensen suggests focusing on fostering a loving environment rather than worrying about holding each child to the same standards.
“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,’” he says. “If you focus on it being okay to treat them differently because they’re different people and have different needs, that’s okay.”