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10/22/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

Caregiver: The Ideal Choice Is The Favorite Child, Study Finds

The term "favorite child" is a loaded one. Most recently, daddy blogger Buzz Bishop sparked a public outcry by admitting he had a favorite son. An army of commenters blasted him for being insensitive.

Yet a new study confirms the idea that parents have favorite children -- and finds aging mothers actually have better mental health outcomes when the preferred child cares for them.

The study was launched in 2001 when a team of sociologists led by J. Jill Suitor, Karl Pillemer and Megan Gilligan began surveying mothers between the ages of 65 and 75 who had two or more children. They were surprised to learn that 75 percent of respondents were willing to name a favorite child they would want to care for them as they grew older. Seven years later, the team touched base with the mothers again. About half of them -- 234 women -- had become sick, injured or disabled. Some were cared for by their preferred child, some were cared for by another child and some were cared for by no child at all.

The outcome? Those who weren't cared for by their favorites reported being more unhappy and anxious than those who were.

The researchers found that mothers usually picked a daughter as the child they were closest to emotionally, and they were more likely to call on a first-born when they needed help than a last-born. Middle children were dramatically underrepresented.

So does a son or daughter know when they've risen to the top of the heap? "Actually, adult children are very perceptive about knowing whether mothers favor one child over others, but they are remarkably inaccurate regarding which child is favored, particularly when they are not the favored child," said Suitor, a professor at Purdue University.

Cornell University's Pillemer agreed, adding that fewer than half of adult children correctly identify their mother's favorite. "Furthermore, adult children are substantially more likely to name themselves as the favorite -- a form of what psychologists call 'egocentric bias,'" he noted. "Children are therefore as likely to be wrong [as] right about mom’s favorite. In a way, this is positive news: Although parents have favorites, they are pretty good at keeping that information from their children." (Studies have shown that favoritism can lead to tension between family members.)

The new study, just published in "The Gerontologist," also shows that favoritism can play a role in depression: "We know that about 25 percent of the time mothers do not receive care from the children they preferred and this is when mothers are at risk for greater depression," Suitor explained, noting that even hired help may be a better option. "We also found that mothers' depressive symptoms were higher when they received care from the non-preferred child than when they received no care from their offspring."

Pillemer and Suitor say that even if a preferred child is constrained from stepping up for very good reasons, it violates the mother's sense of control.

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