There’s always the family favorite. Your little sister got away with temper tantrums suspiciously often, or your older brother somehow snagged all the trophies while you slaved away in an attempt to shine. At least that’s what it kind of felt like, even though your parents repeatedly insisted they loved you and your siblings all equally.
That might be all hot air, according to research from sociologist Katherine Conger, whose original intention of creating a longitudinal study veered into the often testy relationship parents share with their children. So she and her research team asked 384 sibling pairs (each was within four years of the other sibling) how they felt their parents treated them, if they sensed some sort of differential treatment, and whether they felt a blow or spike in their self-esteem from the perceived difference in treatment. The team then interviewed the siblings’ parents for their perspective.
Firstborns tended to feel preferred, perhaps because for a while there, they were (technically) only children. Once the younger sibs came along, their status as oldest child made them the first in the family to score in sports, lead the way academically, and generally confound their parents as to what to do. Eldest children led by example, and when younger kids get to the age of their older siblings, parents had a better idea of what to expect and tended to get a little tougher — at least, that’s what the thinking is.
Younger kids, therefore, felt a little shortchanged by parental attention, reporting that they could sense the firstborn bias and that it affected their self-esteem — much more so than older kids. “I was a little surprised by that,” Conger told Quartz. “Our working hypothesis was that older, earlier born children would be more affected by perceptions of differential treatment due to their status as older child — more power due to age and size, more time with parents — in the family.”
But here’s the surprising kicker of the study: Even if moms and dads didn’t admit to kids that they liked one child over another, 70 percent of fathers and 74 percent of mothers confessed to researchers that they definitely showered one child with preferential treatment over others.
That said, Conger noted that no matter if you were the oldest, youngest, or somewhere in between, every child had a sneaking suspicion their parents were favoring the others. “Everyone feels their brother or sister is getting a better deal,” Conger noted. Ah, sweet sibling rivalry.