Campus Units

Human Development and Family Studies

Document Type


Publication Version

Accepted Manuscript

Publication Date


Journal or Book Title

The Journals of Gerontology: Series B






Objectives Past research suggests that adult children who reform their deviant behaviors (i.e., problems with drugs/alcohol or the law) are more likely to become favored by their mothers, yet the reasons underlying this phenomenon are unclear. This study employs a longitudinal, qualitative approach to explore why adult children’s behavioral reforms shape changes in maternal favoritism.

Methods Analyses are based on qualitative interview data collected at two points seven years apart from older mothers regarding their adult children in 20 families. Each of these families had a “prodigal child”—a child for whom desistance from deviant behaviors between the two waves was accompanied by newfound maternal favoritism.

Results Findings revealed two conditions under which mothers came to favor reformed deviants over their siblings. First, this occurred when adult children’s behavioral reformations were accompanied by mothers’ perceptions of these children as having grown more family-oriented. Second, this occurred when mothers came to see reformed deviants as exhibiting a stronger need and appreciation for maternal support, relative to their siblings.

Discussion Mothers’ perceptions of children’s behavioral reformations as being accompanied by greater dedication to family or reflecting a need for their mothers’ support offer two explanations for why previously deviant adult children may become mothers’ favored offspring. These findings contribute to a growing body of scholarship on the complexity of intergenerational relations by shedding new light on changing patterns of favoritism in families with a history of parental disappointment, conflict, and strain.


This accepted article is published as Reilly Kincaid, B.A, Marissa Rurka, M.S, J Jill Suitor, Ph.D, Megan Gillian, Ph.D, Karl Pillemer, Ph.D, Liam Mohebbi, B.A, Nicholas Mundell, B.S, Prodigal Children: Why Older Mothers Favor Their Once-Deviant Adult Children, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 2021;gbab075, doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbab075.

Copyright Owner

The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Gerontological Society of America.



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Published Version