CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - A parent's unequal attention to the children often is apparent to the kids, but it doesn't have to spell domestic trouble. When children understand what's going on -- and why -- family relationships are less likely to be strained, researchers say.
"Until now, research has assumed that parental differential treatment is harmful, and it has not addressed whether children make distinctions between times when it is appropriate for parents to engage in differential treatment, such as hugging one child more than the other when both accomplish the same goal, said Laurie Kramer, a University of Illinois professor of family studies.
Kramer and graduate assistant Amanda Kowal interviewed 61 children ages 11 to 13 and their siblings, asking them what they thought about parental treatment in different circumstances. The researchers reported that children recognized differential treatment in 35 percent of the situations they were asked about, and that it was judged to be fair 75 percent of the time.
Older children were more likely to view both their mother's and father's actions with a younger child as justified, and, as a result of perceived fairness, they tended to report higher levels of warmth and closeness with their siblings.
"The inequality is acceptable to children if they see it as helping a sibling or as occurring as the result of one of their sibling's needs," Kowal said.
"Although parents may wish to treat their children equally, it is often appropriate and necessary to treat them differently because of differences in their ages, maturity levels and needs," Kramer said. "This study supports the view that children may not be adversely affected by differential treatment if they have some mechanisms for interpreting these behaviors and finding ways to justify them. One way to convey the reason is simply to talk to the child whose needs aren't as great."
The research, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U. of I., looked at differential treatment in terms of parental strictness, punishment, blame and discipline. Other factors included parental pride, interest, favoritism, enjoyment and sensitivity. In measuring the quality of sibling relationships, Kramer and Kowal analyzed accepted scales of closeness and warmth, relative status and power, and sibling conflict.
In other findings, they found that children perceived that older siblings generally were the subject of more parental control than the younger kids and that the later-born children garnered greater affection.
In the eyes of the children, parents acted differently for several reasons: low self-esteem of a sibling; personality traits such as a talkative brother or sister; alliances or circumstances that put one parent with a sibling more often; a sibling's behavior; and more simple things such as age and gender.
"It may be legitimate for parents to place less pressure on themselves
to treat their children exactly the same," Kramer concluded. The researchers'
findings were published in the February issue of Child Development.