Despite what they may say, mothers have favorites among their children, and a new study finds that those preferences tend to continue into old age. The authors of the study suggest that doctors, hospital staff and family members need to take those preferences into account when decisions are made about caregiving and other matters for the aging parent.
“There’s been a great deal of research done on younger mothers with young children in terms of favoritism,” said Jill Suitor, a sociologist at Purdue University and one of the authors of the paper, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. “It’s very common for parents to differentiate between their children” with regard to punishment and feelings of closeness, she said.
Researchers know less about favoritism among older parents, however, so Suitor and her colleagues began a survey of several hundred families 15 years ago. They found that older parents also tend to favor some children over others. “If anything, perhaps it becomes more common,” Suitor said. “It certainly doesn’t become less common.”
As part of their survey, the group asked women between ages 65 and 75 about their relationships with their children. About two-thirds said they were closer emotionally to one of their children than another, feelings that generally persisted seven years later when the researchers surveyed the women again.
At that point, four-fifths of mothers said they preferred one of their children as a caregiver. Mothers tended to prefer the child whom they saw as sharing their values and their perspective on the world, the group found.
In previous studies, Suitor and her colleagues have documented the negative consequences for elderly people when they can’t be near the child they trust most, consequences that included an increased likelihood of depression following an illness or an injury.
There are also serious emotional consequences for adult children who feel excluded. Suitor hopes her group’s work can help them cope with those feelings by recognizing that favoritism is normal.
She also said that when adult children are asked to name the sibling to whom their mother feels closest, they are correct less than half the time, so some of that sense of exclusion may be baseless.
The paper’s other authors were Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University and Cornell University’s Karl Pillemer. Their research was funded by the National Institute on Aging.