You’re My Favourite

Your favourite holiday resort, your favourite, ice cream, your favourite aunt. Everyone has their hierarchy of preferences from flavoured coffee to people with whom they want to spend time – or not. But what if those preferences involve attitudes to your children and with what consequences for them?

Research at the University of California recently brought together 384 pairs of adolescents and their parents. The conclusion drawn from the investigation - and reported in the book “The Sibling Effect” by Jeffrey Kluger – was that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers showed preferential bias towards one child. A common characteristic of the favoured child was that they were older. Writing on the issue in the Times newspaper, an anonymous contributor reports “I was my mother’s favourite - something that my two siblings have tacitly acknowledged as we’ve grown up.”

Parents who have a tendency towards favouritism appear to share the characteristic with other species. The crested penguin is known to eject smaller eggs from the nest; at least one species of eagle has been consistently observed ignoring the spectacle of an older and more powerful chic demolishing its younger sibling.

How can such behaviour – in humans and animals – be explained? There are ready-made ‘off the shelf’ interpretations in evolutionary biology. The underlying thesis is that nature has bestowed a compulsion on animals and humans to propagate their genes as effectively as possible through future generations. Naturally, this is most likely to be achieved in those best fitted to survive. It is a somewhat bleak and dark interpretation of the world and human nature. Beneath our veneer of civilised sophistication are we naked products of our DNA and do we simply dance to its tune?

Clearly, most humans are not simply prisoners of instinct. We are demonstrably capable of altruism, love, compassion and justice. So what other factor is at work? In part 1 of programme 3 of Exploring the God Question, atheists argue that we are able to use reason to loosen the ties to our basic selfish instincts. Theists, on the other hand, claim that as creatures made in the image of God we are spiritually equipped to recognise moral behaviour and to opt for it. No-one denies that tension between selfishness and altruism is ever present.

Perhaps we can take heart from the natural world. In “The Sibling Effect”, Kluger reports on the work of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hardy. Among birds, coots apparently do not follow the pattern of other species and, instead, try to support survival of all their offspring. Mothers have even been observed indulging in positive discrimination by providing extra food for the smallest chic. Perhaps for that reason alone, among birds coots should be your favourite. Meanwhile, do give all your kids the same kind of hug!

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