“Are you going to have more kids?” About a dozen years ago, I got into a conversation on this topic with another mother, a rabbi and a principal at my child’s preschool.

The other mother had two children and worried about how she would be able to give enough of her time and her resources to a third child. The rabbi, a father of four, assured her that she shouldn’t worry about the finances so much. “Things have a way of working themselves out,” he said, in a way that sounded more like “God will provide.”

But the principal also had advice. “Your love is not a fixed pie that gets divided into smaller parts when you have more children.”

Of course, we knew that to be true, but it’s easy to forget in an era of hothouse parenting, when it seems as though the number of hours you spend driving each child to extracurricular activities is a measure of how good a parent you are.

How does birth order change siblings’ family relationships and futures?

I was reminded of this advice recently as I read the results of a new survey that addresses parental favoritism. The first important takeaway for parents is that they shouldn’t play favorites. Adults who believed their parents had a favorite child turned out to be lonelier than those who didn’t. The researchers said that even the perception that parents had a favorite “may be an important factor influencing the quality of sibling relationships.”

Of course, it’s also true that people who are difficult to get along with also tend to look back on their childhoods with bitterness. The cause and effect here can be difficult to sort out. 

And parents in the U.S. seem to be doing a good job of not picking favorites. Only about 40% of Americans with siblings said they thought their parents had a favorite child. 

Still, it was interesting that with each additional sibling in a family, it seemed more likely that people thought their parents had a favorite.

What’s strange, though, is that the percentage of people who thought they were the favorite barely budged as the family size grew larger. Of those who had one sibling, 29% thought they were the favorite. Of those who had two, 28% thought so. With three and four siblings, the numbers were 25% and 26%, respectively. 

What is going on here?

Most parents would like their adult children to say there were no favorites — that they succeeded in demonstrating their love for each child equally.

The next best thing would be that each child would think that there was a favorite and he or she was it. This was apparently true for about a quarter of kids who thought their parents had favorites, and there’s plenty of merchandise for sale on the internet that jokingly reflects this belief — the T-shirt that says “I’m the favorite child” and the mug that says, “Mom, I love how we don’t even need to say out loud that I’m your favorite child.”

But beyond that, what worries many parents considering having more children is the thought that the children will be more likely to feel neglected. And in some limited way, this data suggest that is not the case. 

Why do children in larger families not feel as though someone else was the favorite when, statistically speaking, it’s more likely to be the case?

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As the preschool director suggested, a parent’s love is not a fixed pie. But there are other dynamics, too. In most cases, parents with large families cannot really focus too much attention on any one child. There is simply too much other stuff going on. Perhaps even more importantly, whatever lack of attention they are feeling from their parents is often made up for by the attention of their siblings. 

It’s true that, as parents, we do not have infinite time and resources to devote to our children, and while there are limits to this logic, maybe the data will provide some comfort to those parents who have relatively few pictures of their third or fourth child or who worry that they don’t spend as much quality one-on-one time with them as they’d like.

The kids — at least looking back — aren’t noticing the difference. As if by magic, the family pie is big enough to serve everyone around the table, even if we add a couple more chairs.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”

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