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It’s a source of playful contention in many a family (and a sore subject in some others): do mum and dad have a favourite child, and if so, which one is it? Whenever that question is asked, there are usually two kinds of responses – that from a person with tongue firmly in cheek who will boast that they themselves are the shiniest apple of their parents’ eyes. Then there are those who, with sometimes a hint of bitterness, will declare one of their siblings the golden child.

Of course, nearly all parents will laugh off the question – of course there’s no favourite child. But no matter how loudly parents declare that they love all of their children equally, the idea of a “favourite child” persists. So, a group of scientists set out to find proof that parents do favour one of their offspring more than others.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Brigham Young University found 388 families to take part in a study to find whether the parents unconsciously favoured one child over another. The families were all of similar makeup (married parents, two children in early and middle adolescence with no more than four years’ age difference between them), and the study ran for three years.

Each family was interviewed once per year, with the questions focusing mainly on family dynamics. The questions that proved most illuminating were those that concerned the academic performance of the children – or at least the parents’ perception thereof. Parents were asked how the children differed when it came to their academic results, and whether the older sibling was a lot better at schoolwork than the younger, or if the reverse was true. The researchers also collected the recent school reports of the children to compare against the parents’ answers.

The results of the study were fascinating. The numbers showed that almost half of the parents considered the older sibling to be the better performer in school, even if this was not accurate. Around a third of parents believed their youngest child was a better academic performer, and 19 per cent perceived their children to be similar performers.

This unconscious bias towards the eldest child, even when evidence suggests the opposite is true, could indicate a pattern of favouritism. The study showed that the parental perception of academic performance would often become an accurate prediction. If one sibling was favoured over the other – that is, if the parent felt they were a stronger performer when their grades proved otherwise – then this eventually became true. Interestingly, the reverse of this was not shown to be true – no matter how good or bad a child’s grades were, it seldom changed their parents’ view of academic performance.

When considering the results, the researchers hypothesised that parents may have higher expectations for their firstborn, leading to an unconscious bias towards them. Other explanations offered include the fact that an older sibling will naturally be tackling more advanced concepts in school, making them seem smarter by default. When younger siblings reached education milestones, parental reactions were often underwhelming because it had been seen and done before.

What do you think – do you fit in with the pattern of parents who consider their eldest child to be the smartest – even if the evidence tells you otherwise?