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Posted 08.11.04

Parent-Child Relationship Quality Depends on Child’s Perception of Fairness, MU Study Shows

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Every parent of multiple children has, at some point, heard their children utter the phrase, "That's not fair," in response to punishment or preferential treatment to a sibling. While parents have their own views on when it's fair to treat siblings differently, new research from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows that a parent's feelings of fairness matters little compared to a child's when developing a good parent-child relationship.

Amanda Kolburn, MU assistant professor of human development and family studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, says that while differential treatment of siblings is common and often necessary, understanding how each side views the treatment can be critical in developing good parent-child relationships.

"Children themselves are different," Kolburn said. "They can be different ages and genders and have varying interests, needs and behaviors. These dissimilarities make differential treatment appropriate on some occasions. When parents treat children differently, the parent-child relationship quality appears to be much more affected by the child's perception of whether the treatment was fair rather than the parent's opinion."

Kolburn studied mothers, fathers and two adolescents from 74 married families to determine how family relationships are affected when parents treat children differently. Kolburn interviewed children and parents privately and individually in their homes about their perceptions of differential treatment in their families. Next, each family member completed a questionnaire assessing the quality of parent-child relationships.

The findings indicate that perceptions of fairness are linked with the quality of the relationships parents and children establish. Also, children's perceptions about the magnitude and fairness of preferential behavior by parents were associated more consistently and more robustly with parent-child relationship quality than similar reports by parents. To fully understand the results, Kolburn believes it's important to examine the issue from both sides.

"Understanding parents' perspectives is critical as mothers and fathers are likely to view their child-rearing behaviors, along with their motivation and goals for these behaviors, in ways that differ substantially from their children," Kolburn said. "Children consistently engage in social comparison processes in which they compare the amount and type of attention they receive from parents, relative to their siblings, as a way to gauge the quality of their relationship with parents."

Kolburn said the results of the study suggest that rather than striving to treat children equally, parents should attempt to communicate with their children about differential and equal treatment in their efforts to help children understand the reasons for parents' behavior.

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.


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