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Did Mom Like You Best? Research Reveals Birth Order Role in Caregiving

Did mom like you best?

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"Mom always liked you best." It was a popular line from the 1960s comedy duo the "Smothers Brothers".

The truth is, birth order and parental preferences do impact caregiving situations in families with multiple siblings. Research conducted by Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer (link opens in a new window) found that mothers ages 65 to 75 in the Boston area were perfectly willing to name favorites among their children.

Pillemer noted that parental favoritism is part of the family landscape, with mothers often expressing preferences and identifying one to whom they feel the most emotionally close and one with whom they have the most conflict.

So who did most mothers pick to care for them when they needed help? It often was the one the mother felt emotionally closest to and who she thinks is most similar, who shares her attitudes and values. And she is the one who has provided support and help for her mother in the past.

And that person, according to research conducted for the Home Instead® network, was often the youngest. In fact, 64 percent of youngest siblings are primary caregivers compared with 57 percent of oldest siblings and 49 percent of middle siblings. Furthermore, 43 percent of youngest children say they have the closest relationship with their parents, while 70 percent of oldest children describe themselves as the responsible ones and 40 percent of middle children as the peacemakers of the family.

Sibling relationships expert Ingrid Connidis, Ph.D., of the University of Western Ontario, who worked with the Home Instead network on the organization's 50-50 Rule® public education program for sibling caregivers, explained that the youngest caregiver preference may tie into geography.

"The family caregiver may be the one who lives the closest to the parent. And, in many cases, that may be the youngest. Because the youngest children know more of their parents' recent history, they may be the logical caregivers for that reason as well."

Please download the guide: 50/50 Rule SM Brochure (PDF 950K).

These articles and resources can help you share the care with your adult siblings.

Last revised: December 22, 2010

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. March 27, 2015 at 6:44 pm | Posted by Freda

    So true. My sister is the oldest, and most responsible, but as the youngest, mom is moving in with me at the end of April. My mom is not afraid to say I am her favorite.


  2. March 20, 2015 at 12:57 am | Posted by Jen

    I'm the youngest of 2 and I know that I am mom's favorite, but my older brother is my dad's favorite. So it all works out. I will say that I have all the instructions for what they both wish if we should lose one or both of them, and they have told my brother not to argue with me and just do what I say when the time comes. I will most likely be the one to deal with the estate and/or have power of attorney when necessary. They have also both had multiple discussions with me about how I am the emotional strong one. I also live closest, although my brother did move closer when he retired. Very interesting article.


  3. March 19, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Posted by Christie

    I am a middle child and oldest girl of 4 siblings, my mother and I have always butted heads. She is a demanding person and I won't be told what to do. She never asks. However it has fallen on me to provide care for her. I am still working full time. My older brother lives as close as I do and has been retired for years. He also does some things for her. My two younger sisters live far away, so they can't help. I have RA and some day's are very difficult for me. I have been doing this for the past 6 years and I'm really tired. Good news youngest sister is moving down this year so she can help. Older brother and her are the favorites.


  4. March 18, 2015 at 11:22 pm | Posted by Rita Trites

    I am the youngest of five. I was the one to care for my Mom. One sibling living a mile up the road she was the oldest girl and no help from her or the others in between either. I loved my Mom very much but the lack of particpaction on their behalf was a heart braking experience for both myself and my Mom.


    • October 13, 2015 at 3:05 pm | Posted by Vivian Morley

      Rita Trites, You and I must be twins! Your story is mine. The lack of participation from my brothers and sisters nearly broke my heart. After I joined an online support group, I sadly found that this is pretty much the way it goes. I lived in Atlanta, Ga and sold my house to come back to Indiana, even though the middle sister lives 10 miles away, and the oldest sis retired and moved to Florida. Brothers are no help.


      • May 10, 2021 at 10:28 pm | Posted by Joni

        The lack of support is one thing but the fact that they all talk about all the Many vacations they take all the time and never consider I would love a weekend away. Yet I had to quit working as my Mom requires me here full time, I don’t have an income besides unemployment.


    • May 10, 2021 at 10:22 pm | Posted by Joni

      Exact same here . I am the youngest of 5 1is out of state but the others are close by but no help. They call once a week but that’s it. I know my Mom hurts but she will never admit it.


  5. March 18, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Posted by Sandra Hayslip

    I am the 12th child in a family of 14. I "assumed" the caregiver role for my mom and dad with little to no help from the others. I had 3 pre-teen sons when this took place. My parents had no financial wealth and the consenses was, put them in a nursing home! I could not bring myself to do that, so l moved them into my home and cared for them. My mother was bedfast for two years and passed. My dad lived 9 years after her death and l was in charge of his needs. I was never that close emotionally to my mom and we all knew that she had her 3 favorite children.....l was NOT a favorite! I loved my dad dearly, but he was stubborn as a mule and made caring for him very difficult!!! I guess each family does what they have to do to get through this stage in their lives.


  6. March 18, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Posted by Rosemarie

    Spot on! We are 6 siblings. 4 sons and 2 daughters. I am the youngest daughter, lived the closest and it automatically became my moms caregiver. She passed at 90 in the last stages of dementia. My two younger siblings - sons, shared the responsibility as often as they could. It upset me at first and made me very resentful, as I did not have a personal life for about 4 years. Ended up being depressed and suffered from anxiety attacks. Through the grace of God, I have overcome it. Now that my mom has passed, the older siblings are more in contact while the estate is being wound up!


  7. March 18, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Posted by pat benson

    I never even considered who was the favorite in my family. I am the oldest over two boys, one of which is 10 years younger than me and the youngest. I was the caregiver for both my parents when they became ill and ultimateley passed away. Fortunately I had older daughters, who helped. and i was able to deligate to my siblings when necessary. However i would say that my youngest brother was probably the favorite, But none of us had any problem with it because he was the baby, and in turn he was our baby, cause we each had a turn in helping to bring him up, my parents were better off financially, and was doted over more than me brother who as a year younger than me.


  8. March 18, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Posted by Sonja P

    I am the youngest of two and I was never my mothers favorite. My brother married a girl my mom didn't like, for reasons that I later found to be ridiculous. My sister in law is a great person, wife and mother. However, this meant that any care my mom needed was probably going to fall on me and my husband. We eventually bought the farm that my mom had inherited from her husband and we did end up with all the care of my mom till she died. It is impossible to explain the stress that goes along with caring for someone that blatantly shows their preference to the other child. I struggled with this for a long time but have come to terms with it as I have gotten older. I tried to encourage my brother to help with my moms care but he saw how much work it was and avoided it as much as possible. I feel for every person that has the care of a parent, even if you have a good relationship with them it can be very stressful and very discouraging.


  9. June 4, 2012 at 6:23 am | Posted by Vickie

    In my situation both parents are still living & there are 4 siblings. I have an older brother, older sister & a younger sister (I am the middle girl). My parents have been married for 65 years, live in their own home & their health conditions have rapidly deteriorated. Recently they were both in the hospital at the same time & now require constant care. I live the furtherest away (4 hours), but the caregiver role has fallen on me. I am married, kids are grown & I own my own business. My siblings expect me to care for my parents, their medical, financial & emotional situations. My personal life is on hold & I don't see anything changing in the near future.


    • March 18, 2015 at 8:39 pm | Posted by Wendy

      Look into Hospice. It's a misconception that one has to be right at death's door to call them. Birth order wise I am the youngest and the only daughter. My parents moved near me for help when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He died eight years ago (at 80) and now my mom is 88 and has COPD and CHF. She was accepted into a hospice program 10 months ago and it has been a huge blessing. No more doctors and hospitals. They give compassionate (not curative) care including showering and all her medicines. It's been a game changer for both of us and these last few months have been the easiest in years. Best to you and your family.


  10. April 10, 2011 at 11:33 am | Posted by Helen

    I also found this article to be interesting. I am the oldest in a family of four: There are two daughters and then two sons. The youngest was born 10 years after me and is by far my mother's favorite. My mother, however, is an alcoholic and used her two daughters to care for her two sons like surrogate mothers. After my father passed away three years ago, she transferred the property she owned next door to her (worth 1.25 million) to her youngest son. He has power of attorney and health care proxy and will not consider my wishes when it comes to her care. Yet, he is resentful because he feels he is next door and most of the day-to-day decisions fall on him. From my perspective, he wants it both ways. As well, I believe he is more concerned with preserving his future assets than ensuring that she is getting the best care possible. So, yes, our family is clearly an example of one where decision-making isn't shared and the family unit has completely broken down. It's very sad--very tragic.


  11. February 19, 2011 at 1:06 am | Posted by kathryn

    This article is very interesting. I am the youngest in a family of four. After my father died, my mother moved to her home state and my sister, who is the oldest, and I were the only ones left in our home state. As my mother aged, I packed up my children and moved just 1 mile from her. I felt it was necessary since she had a fall, hit her head while living alone, and experienced a concussion. That was 13 years ago and my mother is doing well, but she will need a lot more help in the very near future. I would love to take care of my mother fulltime, but I am single and have to work fulltime. I am the only sibbling living in the same state as my mother


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