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One of the most common complaints of children aged 2 to 102 is "Mama (daddy, or both) didn't love me the way he, she, or they loved you!" Siblings often feel that they missed out on love that their parents had for their other children. Frankly, often these aggrieved children can point to objective evidence for their complaints.

Even the most loving and fair-minded parents don't always show their love for their children in the same ways. This is particularly true when one child has special needs and another child does not. Any adult can see that if parents have a child in the hospital struggling to beat cancer, that child will need more of their time, attention, and money than their other children. However, if you are the child who is being short-changed, you may not be as forgiving.

In 2005, Dr. Katherine Conger, a professor at the University of California at Davis, visited 384 sets of opposite-sex parents who had more than one child and their children three times over the course of three years. She concluded that 74 percent of mothers and 70 percent of fathers loved one child more than others. She did not, as many articles have reported, find that all parents loved one child more than their others, and she also found that most parents would not easily disclose which of their children they preferred. 

Children, on the other hand, were pretty clear about who they thought were favorites. First-born children almost always assumed they were their parents' favorites, and later-born children thought their first-born siblings were favorites, too. There are some easy and non-threatening explanations as to why this may be. First-born children by virtue of coming into this world before the others spend more time with their parents. They know their parents better. They have a longer family history. They have a greater life experience on which to base their claims in the family.

First-born children don't have greater experience with their parents. They also stack a lot of "firsts." It was their first words that their parents heard as "first words from my baby." It was their first step that was their parents' first experience of this developmental milestone. First-borns usually bring home the first good report card, win the first game, and charm their parents at their first birthday and first Christmas. Later children often feel compelled to get attention by acting "differently," which may include acting out. Misbehaviors may be a statement of individuality, but they aren't endearing to their parents.

If later children really don't get as much of their parents' attention, what do they get that compensates them for this "loss"? If you weren't the first-born child in your family, take consolation in the facts that:

  • You probably developed greater intelligence in the process of competing with your older sibling or siblings.
  • You have a built-in support system that your older sibling had to develop as a young adult, or at least you are more likely to have that support system.
  • You are more likely to have a stable marriage than your older sibling

And psychological studies have found that later-born children are likely to have accurate memories of how it was when they were growing up. By and large, later-born children don't dream up hardships they endured during childhood. If they remember something, it's because it happened.

The good news about childhood experiences is that nearly everyone outgrows them, whether they were good or bad, by the age of 40. By that time, most people have children of their own. Just remember to treat your children equally, or at least try. And if you are an adult child, remember that your parents may prefer to be loved equally, too. Even if hard feelings are deserved, it's you who feels them. Move into adulthood and don't let childhood hold you back past its time.

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