Mother and her son
Family & Friends

Family relationships: did you grow up thinking your mum treated your brother differently to you?

Many women who grew up with a brother claim they were treated differently to each other by their mother while growing up. But is there any truth to this? An expert explains everything. 

“There is a difference between how Black moms treat their daughters and their sons,” Willow Smith said to her mum Jada Pinkett Smith on a recent episode of their Facebook series Red Table Talk

She gave the example from her school days when Pinkett Smith would frantically urge her daughter to get up in the morning then calmly and almost apologetically ask her son to get out of bed and get ready.

Pinkett Smith couldn’t help but concede: “She might have a point”. Her reasoning was that she wanted to help prepare her daughter for a world where women, and Black women in particular, have to work harder in society.

This family issue – the idea that mothers give their sons special treatment while giving their daughters a harder time – is something I massively relate to. 

Growing up as a very quiet and reserved child, I always felt overshadowed by my two hyperactive and cheeky older brothers. My mum of course showed me love and affection, especially as I was her youngest child and only daughter. But then my little sister came along (grrr!), I became a middle child and, well, we all started to grow up.

Since my teenage years right up until today, I feel that my mum has “mollycoddled” my brothers into adulthood, helping them with life admin and even chores around their own homes. And, although I have a good relationship with my mum and know she is always there for me, I feel I would never get the same amount of help they do.

When I’ve spoken to her about this before, she either says I’m being ridiculous or explains that it’s because she knows I’m more responsible, independent and smarter than my brothers. But while I (obviously) agree with this, it would just be nice to be looked after in this doting way from time to time.  

Sure, I might sound a little bit pathetic, but we all know how deep family issues can cut and sting.

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Some of my female friends and colleagues knew exactly what I was talking about when I brought this up. 

“I’m still trying to work out why my mum helped my brother, who earns more than me and lives in a much cheaper area, to buy a house while I slog my guts out and struggle to pay rent in London,” one pal exclaimed. 

“I’m the youngest but I still had to start doing house chores before my brother, because my mum would say he needed to relax,” shared my colleague Hanna, explaining it might be a South Asian cultural thing for her family. 

“My brother is the only boy and the youngest!” Chloe, another colleague, chirped. “My parents cared so much less about his grades at school, about what time he came home from parties. They gave him more time and investment in sport and driving. He jokes that he is the ‘favourite’, and while my parents would insist that he isn’t, they know why we say it.”

The only exception from the rule, according to my friend Liz*, is if the daughter is the youngest: “I wouldn’t say I’m treated better, but I do think, being the youngest growing up, I was quite often favoured. For example, I would always be given a lift to friends’ houses whereas my older brother maybe wasn’t.”

To get to the bottom of why so many daughters feel like this, I spoke with psychologist, author and couples therapist Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari to find out what’s really going on.

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Is it common for mothers to treat their sons and daughters differently?

“Parents treating their children differently is common in families, especially those with children from both genders. For example, mothers tend to have higher expectations from and be more critical of their daughters over their sons, according to a Netmums survey.

“It doesn’t stop there – it can also be seen in the relationships with and the way that parents treat their daughters-in-law (sometimes they are seen as competition and receive more criticism) and their sons-in-law (generally speaking there are fewer expectations and they tend to admire or adore them). This is another reflection of the dynamic of the family at younger ages.”

Are mothers aware of this behaviour? Why do they do it? 

“I don’t believe that many mothers are aware of this type of behaviour – a lot of it is unconscious and unintentional. However, when many of them reflect on it, they recognise and acknowledge the difference. Research has shown that there are a range of reasons for favouritism in the family, such as birth order, gender, similarity to a parent, one being the so-called ‘good child’ and illness or special needs.

“This favouritism can manifest itself in a range of ways. If we focus on gender, for example, mothers will often allow more latitude for sons over daughters, and they are twice as likely to be more critical towards their daughters, according to the same Mumsnet study. But on the other hand, in a study published The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, about their relationships in adulthood, mothers were twice as likely to name their daughters as the ones they felt emotionally closest to. This might also be that they have higher emotional expectations and more emotional connections with daughters when they grow up, compared to a different attitude and expectation when they are younger.

“Lastly, developmentally, daughters identify with their mothers, whereas sons need to psychologically separate from their mother and identify with their father. This separation might also be a source of a different kind of nurturing by mothers.”

Mother and son
Family relationships: do mothers really treat daughters and sons differently?

How can this affect the dynamics of a family?

“This type of different attitude, expectation or behaviour can impact in many ways – it is reported that girls grow up with more self-critical issues compared to boys, which in some ways can limit their potential. It can also build resentment, rivalry and jealousy between siblings, leading to a hidden or unspoken competition for the parents’ love.

“All children in these scenarios can be affected – the ‘favourite’ might hold shame and guilt, and another sibling might experience resentment and anger.”

How can a daughter approach her mother to talk about this?

“I would recommend saying how you feel, explaining your experience of the relationship and sharing what you wish was different. Speak about the underlying hurt you feel, rather than placing blame or being critical. Acknowledge that she loves you, wants the best for you and that you trust your relationship strength to be able to share your feelings with her. Tell her she doesn’t need to respond, you’d just like her to listen and think about it.

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“To mothers who are discussing this with their daughters,I would say listen fully and honestly. Try to avoid defending or giving excuses for your actions, instead thanking her for sharing her thoughts and feelings. Reassure her that you are going to reflect on it. If she is hurt, I would advise validating her feelings and acknowledging her strength and trust for her to come and speak to you. Give her a hug, a kiss, and remind her that she is a gift in your life.”

Science has spoken: mothers treat siblings differently for all sorts of reasons, and their gender can very well be one of those reasons – even in a family as close, honest and loving as the Pinkett Smiths. But, if the difference in how your mum treats you and your brother/s really does bother you, it’s perhaps worth using Dr. Ben-Ari’s tips to have a conversation with her. And who knows, your trust and honesty might make you the new golden child.

*Name changed at contributor’s request

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