Admit It, Parents: You Play Favorites With The Kids

May 31, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 9:19 am
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There is one question parents rarely answer truthfully. Do you play favorites with your kids? Overwhelmingly, parents say no. But what does the research say? Our co-host Steve Inskeep talked about it with NPR's Shankar Vedantam.



INSKEEP: So what kind of favoritism among the kids are we talking about here?

VEDANTAM: In this case, we're looking at gender favoritism, Steve. I was speaking with Kristina Durante. She's a marketing professor at Rutgers, and she noticed among her own two children - she has a boy and a girl - that anytime she divides a resource unequally, the kids scream holy murder.

INSKEEP: No fair, no fair.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And so it prompted her to ask, is it possible kids are actually behaving this way because parents, in fact, are behaving with some kind of favoritism? When she and her colleagues surveyed parents, the parents said, of course not, we don't play favorites. But...

KRISTINA DURANTE: When I asked these same parents, well, do you track the amount of time you spend with each child or how much money you spend on them, they said no. And when we don't track these things, this opens the door for bias.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess that's an opportunity for a researcher to actually begin to track these things.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. So in a pilot study, Durante and her colleagues gave away raffle tickets at a zoo and measured whether parents who had both a son and a daughter tried to win a boy's backpack or a girl's backpack. More dads tried to win a backpack for their sons. More moms tried to win for their daughters. In a second study they conducted among 400 parents in both the United States and India, moms and dads could elect to enter a lottery that could win either their sons or their daughters a U.S. Treasury bond worth $25. Here's Durante.

DURANTE: In the United States and in India, we found that there was a sex-matching bias such that fathers were significantly more likely to choose that the Treasury bond should be allocated to their son, whereas mothers were significantly more likely to choose that the treasury bonds should go to their daughter.


VEDANTAM: Well, we don't exactly know why this is happening. Durante and her colleagues have a hypothesis. They think that parents are identifying with their children in different ways. So when the researchers ask parents, do you see yourself more in one of your children, moms are more likely to say they see themselves in their daughters, fathers are more likely to say they see themselves in their sons.

INSKEEP: They are more likely to relate to the child of the same gender. And so even though they think they're being fair, it's just a little bit easier for them to lean to that person.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly the case researchers are making. Now, at one level, Steve, you can just say the study is fun. You can use this as ammunition if you want to needle your own parents about their favoritism. But more importantly, this might explain why in societies where men control the purse strings, girls consistently get fewer resources than boys do. And if you want to level the playing field for girls all over the world, one way to do this is to give moms more control.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I mean, you realize that that would be a reason that girls would be disfavored generation after generation after generation, if each parent leans a particular way but one has more power that decides it. Let me ask another question. She said if you don't track these kinds of things, you are going to be having unconscious bias, which is what you focus on so much. Does tracking the way that you treat your children in some specific way help?

VEDANTAM: I think it can help if you're willing to take the data and change your own behavior. So in other words, if you consistently see that your own behavior is biased in favor of one kid rather than another...

INSKEEP: Spending more on one kid than the other kid.

VEDANTAM: Right. And let's assume that's not actually what you want to be doing. You can actually use the data to change your own behavior.

INSKEEP: Shankar, fair report. Thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who is host of the podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.