The Atlantic

It Used to Be Okay for Parents to Play Favorites

The idea that you’re supposed to treat your children equally is recent, and it’s still not the norm in much of the world.
Source: Manuel Romaris / Getty

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on January 24, 2019.

The fight might be over the last fruit strip or the TV or the best chair in front of the TV; it doesn’t really matter. My children’s conflict has many causes but only one true one: They are siblings, and that’s what siblings do. The war between brothers and sisters is eternal, each generation renewing the hostilities that have defined sibling relations since humanity began.

Although it seems as if my children never give it a rest, in fact they fight far less than the average. Statistically, they should be arguing more than three times an hour, a number researchers landed on not by interviewing children or parents but by installing microphones in the subjects’ homes. Younger children fight even more—six times each hour. This means they have a fight—a real fight, not just cross words—every 10 minutes.

It is very disturbing when the people you love most in the world turn savagely on one another, and from the parents’ perspective, it makes no sense. They’re fighting for the affection, attention, and material goods that their parents supply, all of which said parents are in no mood to hand over after a few hours of constant bickering.

From the combatants’ point of view, however, the conflict is unavoidable. Children fight because they’re wired to. Sibling rivalry is an evolutionary imperative, an innate impulse. We’re programmed to turn on the usurpers who compete with us for precious resources like food and parental attention, and we begin early. By six months, infants get upset when their mother pays attention to a baby doll. By 16 months, they know what bothers their siblings and will annoy them on purpose.

For many of us, our relationships with our siblings are the most profound relationships in our lives, more important and influential than the ones we have with our parents. They are in fact the only relationship many Which gives us a long, long time to hold a grudge.

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