TODAY   |  September 26, 2011

Do parents play favorites with their kids?

Psychiatrist Gail Saltz and author of “The Sibling Effect” Jeffrey Kluger sit down to discuss the age-old question surrounding what causes sibling rivalry and if parents love their children equally.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> back now at 8:10, this morning on ""today's" family," the favorite child . parents will tell you they love each child the same but a growing body of study shows this may not be true or natural.

>> mom always liked you best.

>> oh, she did not.

>> reporter: sibling rivalry goes back as far as cain and abell. the favorite child and power play that follows can shape your personalities and define family dynamics.

>> well who's your best friend ?

>> i have two. hank has been my closest friend since my first year at ibm. then there's robby.

>> reporter: "time" magazine reports on this question in this week's cover story . its take -- parents favor one child over another more often than they admit.

>> you tend to have one that you tend to get along better with, let's just put it that way.

>> reporter: a recent study from the university of california davis found 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers have a preferred son or daughter. the winner is most often the older sibling. research shows first borns are statistically taller, stronger and may have slightly higher iqs.

>> i think your first child is always very special.

>> reporter: favoritism plays out in the wild as well. the crested penguin mother is known to kick the smaller of her two eggs out of of the nest. of course, some experts believe there is no science to favoritism.

>> i don't agree that biologically we are programmed to like one kid more than the other.

>> reporter: and the survival of the fittest doesn't explain why the youngest is sometimes the star.

>> beaver, do you think for one moment that i'd make you do anything that would make you unhappy?

>> reporter: one situation remains universal -- when a certain child is the apple of a parent's eye --

>> this is so unfair.

>> reporter: -- the relationship between siblings almost always grows sour.

>> you broke my heart. you broke my heart.

>> reporter: jeffrey kluger wrote the "time" magazine article as well as the book ""the sibling effect." and also joining us this morning, psychiatrist gail saltz, a "today" contributor. i know you're going to get some push-back on this. it does seem as though there is a lot of new kind of -- there's a new awakening. more and more parents are at least saying in these studies they're willing to admit to this.

>> they're willing to admit to it and also kids are willing to come forward and acknowledge candidly without too much pain that, yes, it's always been a given in our family that even if it is an unspoken given, it's always been a given that favoritism exists.

>> why do you think it exists? you've looked at all of this research. what is the reason behind this if in fact it is true?

>> i mean keep in mind, the whole idea of reproduction is a genetically narcissistic act. the whole goal is to get our genes into the next generation and then for that generation to get their genes into the following generation. given that we are hard-wired to tilt in favor of our biggest, strongest, most charismatic child , this child being the one who is the likeliest to get to the next generation. one of the reasons it often becomes the oldest who's the preferred one is an idea corporations understand -- it is called sunk costs. by the time a child is 2 and the second born comes along, parents have invested two years of time, energy, calorie, love, all matter of resources into this product that's further down the assembly line so we stay invested in it.

>> you say this is not just when a child -- we don't make this judgment based on sort of the stages our children are going through. for example the terrible 2s, but really you're saying this is a constant preference and -- but what do you say to people right now listening going heck no, that's not true, i love them both the same. there is this constant insistence that we've also been sort of i think it is learned behavior. we've all learned that we have to continue to insist on it.

>> there's a lot that goes on. one of the things, in fairness -- remember, social science isn't physics, it is no the chemistry so there are never any hard, hard empirical answers. there are degrees of favoritism up to shameless and fragrant. we are genetically driven but it is important to remember that even if there is a broad idea of favoritism in one family, you still favor one child in one domain over another. the dad who is a jock may love his son on the football field but the boy may drive him crazy when he's trying to have a simple conversation so he turns to his daughter for that.

>> do you agree with it sh.

>> biology isn't necessarily destiny. so you can change these things. even if there is some drive, it doesn't happen to everybody and it can be very psychologically motivated which means it can be changed. being aware if you have certain feelings, which may be driven by unconscious things that have to do with your family of origin or other issues that come into play. you can change that if you're very aware. you certainly at least can affect your behavior. your behavior should be that you spend special time with each child , that you work to make sure that you are being fair and even in a sense which might mean that you pay attention to certain strengths in certain children, different strengths in others, and their weaknesses. because even a favored child can really suffer from being favored, can feel guilty and cannot have their weaknesses attended to and can be given the idea they're so fantastic and then they get out in the world and actually they have problems. so it is not great shakes to be necessarily favored or unfavored which means as parent you really have to attend to both of those issues which you can only do if you're aware of your own feelings.

>> which is the first thing, we're trying to hear about in jeffrey's work. thanks so much.