Pretty kids get the best deal all round

Disturbing new evidence from researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada, which is hard to believe, suggests that parents take better care of pretty children than they do of ugly ones.

In their research the team observed how parents treated their children during trips to the supermarket, and found that physical attractiveness made a big difference. The researchers noted whether the parents belted their youngsters into the shopping trolley seat, how often the parents' attention lapsed and the number of times the children were allowed to engage in potentially dangerous activities such as standing up.

They also rated each child's physical attractiveness on a 10-point scale.

According to the researchers when it came to buckling up, pretty and ugly children were treated in starkly different ways, with seat belt use increasing in direct proportion to attractiveness. When a woman was in charge, 4 per cent of the plainest children were strapped in compared with 13.3 per cent of the most attractive children and the difference was even more acute when fathers were in charge, then apparently none of the least attractive children were secured with seat belts, while 12.5 per cent of the prettiest children were.

Plain children were also less supervised, more often out of sight of their parents, and often allowed to wander more than three metres away.

Andrew Harrell, executive director of the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta and the leader of the research team, says there is an evolutionary reason for the findings: pretty children, he says, represent the best genetic legacy, and therefore they get more care.

Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology and education at Yale, has problems with Harrell's method and conclusions and questions whether socio-economic status was considered. He says wealthier parents have better resources to feed, clothe and take care of their children which possibly makes them more attractive. Sternberg says the link to evolutionary theory is "speculative.

Dr Harrell argues that the importance of physical attractiveness "cuts across social class, income and education", and as with lots of animals, we tend to parcel out our resources on the basis of value and one of the things that makes a person more valuable is physical attractiveness

The findings were presented at the Warren Kalbach Population Conference in Edmonton.

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