So you think you know which sibling your mother likes best? Jill Suitor says there is a good chance you have it all wrong.
The sociology professor has spent nearly 20 years conducting the Within-Family Differences Study (WFDS), polling moms about their relationships with their children and then comparing their responses to input gathered from their kids.
Not only was Suitor surprised by how often moms would state familial preferences, she was stunned by how often their actual preferences didn’t matter. The adult children’s perceptions about favoritism were what often contributed to depression and shaped relationships among siblings – and those perceptions were frequently incorrect.
“The lack of accurate awareness is problematic because of the effect,” Suitor said. “And actually moms’ own reported preferences have no effect on kids’ psychological well-being. But it’s what the kids think, and yet they’re usually wrong. So it’s complicated because it has consequences.”
The results are significant for many reasons.
In addition to the data’s indications about how children’s incorrect assumptions regarding parental favoritism can affect mental health and family relationships, the study is also valuable because of its longitudinal nature.
In phase one, Suitor and research partner Karl Pillemer interviewed 566 mothers – ages 65 to 75 – and 773 of their children about their parent-sibling relationships. Around a decade later, they re-interviewed 420 of the moms and 826 of their kids, uncovering further data about whether moms’ preferences changed over time, the effects of their preferences, and the impact caregiving decisions have on the family dynamic. Suitor and her research partners hope to soon embark on a third phase that will examine how these relationship perceptions affect the bereavement process.
The study’s findings are revelatory enough on their own, but it is the data’s value to practitioners who treat aging families that make the WFD study even more worthwhile.
“You read and the number of physicians that consider family problems to be an obstacle to try and provide care is insane. So I think a lot of physicians and people interacting with older adults could really benefit from some more knowledge on how to negotiate family conflict.” said Marissa Rurka, a doctoral student in sociology and gerontology, and a Ross Fellow who has assisted Suitor with her research.
For one thing, it is important that healthcare professionals ascertain which child mom would prefer to serve as her caregiver, and to develop methods to influence that decision-making process. Suitor’s research shows that moms are more prone to depression when the child who serves as her primary caregiver is not the child she prefers for that role.
“Even some of the kids who are caring for mom don’t have a clue as to whether mom really preferred them,” Suitor said. “Yet that does make a difference, apparently, in the mom’s perceptions of the quality of care she receives.”
One of the greatest influences on mom’s caregiving preference – that she feels the child shares her values – is also one of the most telling factors in her selection of favored offspring.
If the child’s views on matters such as religion, politics, and general life outlook jibe with mom’s, she is more likely to feel close to and proud of them. If they frequently disagree about these things, mom is more likely to experience conflict with and be disappointed in them.
Among the other influences that affect moms’ preferences: gender (they generally like daughters best and confide in them most often), age (youngest siblings are most likely to be the favorite), and educational accomplishments.
While those factors offer general insight into the conditions that might influence parental favoritism, first-hand experience is often unreliable. The adult siblings’ own assessments of their mothers’ preferences consistently missed the mark.
Suitor shared her findings at a 2016 TedxPurdue talk titled, “So You Think You’re Mom’s Favorite,” telling the audience that just 47 percent of adult children were correct in claiming they were the sibling who was closest to their mother compared to what the mother reported. Just 39 percent of the respondents were correct in saying mom was proudest of them, and 41 percent were correct in their belief that they were the child who most disappointed their mother.
Conflict was the only category where more than half of the children’s self-assessment was correct, with 51 percent correctly identifying themselves as the sibling who had the most disagreements with mom.
That makes the interpersonal damage perceptions can cause seem especially tragic since they are so often incorrect.
“You may say there’s a communication problem because you don’t really know how your mother thinks,” said Siyun Peng another doctoral student who co-authored several articles and chapters in the study. “But on the other hand, it just speaks to how important the family relationship is. Even your own perceptions can have an effect on your health. When you’re talking about interventions, maybe this is something we need to talk about. For the children, if they have perceptions that their mother differentiates, maybe it’s good for them to know that they’re probably wrong so they don’t have to worry about it that much.”
Fellow sociology/gerontology doctoral student and Fulbright Scholar Gulcin Con agreed, adding, “If I perceive myself as favored or disfavored, then it’s going to affect me more than whether my mom is actually favoring me or not. Therefore, I think it is important for us, as sociologists, to show to the policy makers, to the practitioners – especially in the context of caregiving – that these perceptions have consequences.”
The degree to which moms were willing to state a preference – eventually – surprised the researchers. And yet 70 percent were willing to identify the child they felt closest to, 69 percent acknowledged the child who was the most frequent source of conflict, 55 percent picked the child who engendered the greatest sense of pride, and 54 percent listed the child in whom they were the most disappointed.
“The first thing we had to do was a pilot study to see whether moms would even admit it,” Suitor said. “And a lot of moms will say something like, ‘Oh, I love all my children the same. How could you ask me a question like that? But if you really want to know, though, I just feel differently about David. I don’t really want to. It’s not that I love him any more than the others, but I just feel closer to him.’
“So just finding they would talk about it thrilled us. So our first end game was just finding out to what extent there were patterns of differentiation.”
In the nearly two decades since then, the study’s research focus has branched out far beyond Suitor and Pillemer’s original intent, with Suitor’s graduate assistants frequently redirecting it to examine their own research concerns.
That has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the WFD study for Suitor, whose mentorship has helped multiple students who share her interest in aging and family to embark upon their own academic careers. Her former graduate assistant and collaborator Megan Gilligan (Ph.D. 2013) is now an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Iowa State.
“Jill’s really good about getting you involved from the get-go, and your role changes as you progress and get further along. But everything is a collaboration, so you’re on papers, and you’re helping her think about how to frame things, and looking at data. So it’s been really fun. It’s a very hands-on, active, collaborative project.”
Suitor’s encouragement ensures that her original project will further evolve as her students provide their own assessments of inter-family relationships across the life course. That creates a win-win situation for all involved, with their research and writing bringing additional depth to the study while also preparing Suitor’s graduate students for their own careers.
“I get as much from working with my students as they ever get from working with me,” Suitor said. “And I also feel as somebody who has been funded by government for 28 years and who works every day in a job funded by the state of Indiana, I really feel it’s part of my mission, ethically, to train that next generation of scholars.”