updated 5/3/2005 12:33:59 PM ET 2005-05-03T16:33:59

Most parents would deny it, but Canadian researchers have found that physical attractiveness affects how children are treated, according to a report Tuesday in The New York Times.

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Researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton watched how parents interacted with their children while shopping in supermarkets and found that so-called ugly ones were more neglected and allowed to engage in potentially dangerous behavior.

The team lead by Dr. W. Andrew Harrell, executive director of the Population Research Laboratory, followed more than 400 parents and their 2-to-5-year-old children around 14 Canadian grocery stores, noting whether the adults strapped their youngsters into the grocery cart seat, the newspaper reports.

Researchers also observed how often the child wandered more than 10 feet away and whether the kids were allowed to engage in risky behaviors such as standing up in the shopping cart.

The children's attractiveness was rated on a 10-point scale by the research team.

Best genetic material?
The differences were striking. The researchers found that 1.2 percent of the homely children were buckled into the shopping cart, compared with 13.3 percent of the prettiest ones. When a man was in charge of shopping, none of the unattractive children were strapped into the carts, while 12.5 percent of the cute children were.

Less attractive children were also allowed to wander further away and were out of sight of their parents more often.

Age played a factor as well. Younger children were more likely to be secured and older adults were more lax about letting kids wander out of sight.

The researchers speculated that Darwinian behavior was responsible for the parents' actions.  Pretty children represent the best genetic material and, therefore, get more attention, the researchers hypothesized.

Other experts disagreed, saying that there's no evolutionary reason for parents to favor pretty children over less attractive ones, the newspaper reported.

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