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The family began as--and remains--a survival unit, with parents agreeing to care for the kids, the kids agreeing to carry on the genes and all of them doing what they can to make sure no one gets eaten by wolves. But the resources that make this possible are limited. "Economic means, types of jobs, even love and affection are in finite supply," says psychologist Mark Feinberg of Penn State. Parents, despite themselves, are programmed to notice the child who seems most worthy of the investment. While millenniums of socialization have helped us resist and even reverse this impulse, and we often pour much of a family's wealth and energy into the care of the disabled or difficult child, our primal programming still draws us to the pretty, gifted ones.
Conger devised a study to test how widespread favoritism is. She assembled a group of 384 adolescent sibling pairs and their parents, visiting them three times over three years and questioning them all about their relationships, their sense of well-being and more. To see how they interacted as a group, she videotaped them as they worked through sample conflicts. Overall, she concluded that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child--in most cases, the older one. What's more, the kids know what's going on. "They all say, 'Well, it makes sense that they would treat us differently, because he's older or we're a boy and a girl,'" Conger reports.
At first, kids appear to adapt well to the disparity and often learn to game the system, flipping blatant favoritism back to their shared advantage. "They'll say to one another, 'Why don't you ask Mom if we can go to the mall because she never says no to you,'" says Conger. But at a deeper level, second-tier children may pay a price. "They tend to be sadder and have more self-esteem questions," Conger says. "They feel like they're not as worthy, and they're trying to figure out why."
Think you're not still living the same reality show? Think again. It's no accident that employees in the workplace instinctively know which person to send into the lion's den of the corner office with a risky proposal or a bit of bad news. And it's no coincidence that the sense of hurt feelings and adolescent envy you get when that same colleague emerges with the proposal approved and the boss's applause seems so familiar. But what you summon up with the feelings you first had long ago is the knowledge you gained then too--that the smartest strategy is not to compete for approval but to strike a partnership with the favorite and spin the situation to benefit yourself as well. This idea did not occur to you de novo. You may know it now, but you learned it then.
•Why your sibling is--or isn't--your best role model
IT'S NO SECRET THAT BROTHERS AND SISTERS emulate one another or that the learning flows both up and down the age ladder. Younger siblings mimic the skills and strengths of older ones. Older sibs are prodded to attempt something new because they don't want to be shown up by a younger one who has already tried it. More complex--and in many ways more important--are those situations in which siblings don't mirror one another but differentiate themselves--a phenomenon psychologists call de-identification.