We have all heard about the power of birth order, and who can’t come up with plenty examples of anecdotal evidence? Everyone knows a “responsible” oldest child, a “free-spirited” baby of the family, or an “often overlooked” middle child. We have several friends with three or more children, and get togethers can often provide (inadvertent) illustrations of this family dynamic. It goes something like this…the questions of the day revolve around the eldest child’s activities…while the baby receives Mom’s cuddles, warm smiles, and constant attention. The middle child sweetly dribbles juice and grilled cheese down his shirt. No one is really paying attention to the dribbling, though. The irony of this story… is that none of our friends would intentionally advocate treating their children differently. It just happens…in every family. No child is loved more. No sibling is more special than the others. The eldest child simply hits his or her milestones first (which is exciting), and the baby requires extra attention. Therefore, the second born is often overlooked.
Researchers are quite fascinated with the subject…as birth order psychology transcends cultural boundaries and has endured for generations. Yes, throughout history (even when large families were the norm), eldest siblings have dominated the professions of law, medicine, politics, and engineering. More than half of all Nobel Prize winners and U.S. presidents have been first borns (despite coming from families with 5-15 children). Furthermore, every astronaut to go into space, thus far, has been either the eldest child in his or her family, or the eldest boy. And let’s not forget the laundry list of super macho, first born movie stars, including Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and all of the actors who have played James Bond. Coincidence? Probably not.
Nevertheless, birth order theory can be turned on its head, depending on age gaps, gender differences, and other factors during the formative years (relocation, divorce, remarriage) …yet, it does seem to play a role in shaping us into adults. However, how significant is the impact? Let’s look at a few research studies (warning: this part is a bit dull & scientific, however stick with me…the info is quite fascinating):
- In June 2007, a group of Norwegian researchers released a study showing that firstborns are generally smarter than siblings who come along later, enjoying a three-point IQ advantage over the next eldest (on average). The second child, subsquently, scored a point ahead of the third. This may not seem like much at first, however a 3 point IQ spread translates to about a 15 point difference on the SAT (a 705 Math score may gain admission to a desired University while 690 falls just short, or it could be the difference between an A- grade average and a B+). The method: these epidemiologists analyzed data on birth order, health status and I.Q. scores of 241,310 18- and 19-year-old men born from 1967 to 1976, using military records. After correcting for factors that may affect scores, including parents’ education level, maternal age at birth and family size, the researchers found that eldest children scored an average of 103.2, about 3 percent higher than second children (100.3) and 4 percent higher than thirdborns (99.0). The group cited that since gender has no effect on IQ scores, they would expect the same results with data from females.
- While most attribute differences in income level to factors such as socioeconomic class, education level, and even luck… Dalton Conley, New York University professor of sociology and public policy, says in his book The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, that the concept of inequality starts at home. Conley’s study concludes that “economic and social inequality among adult siblings is not the exception, but the norm. Over half of all income inequality is within families, not between them. And it is each family’s own ‘pecking order’ that helps to foster such disparities” (examples: Bill vs. Roger Clinton, who spent a year in jail for a cocaine conviction; and Jimmy vs. Billy Carter, known for his alcoholism, embarrasing public interviews, and advocacy on behalf of the state of Libya).
- Dr. Frank Sulloway, a behavioral scientist at University of California, Berkeley and author of the book Born To Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, says firstborns are more similar in personality to firstborns in other families than they are to their own younger siblings. Similarly, youngest children are often more similar to the youngest child in another family than his or her own elder siblings. He says this occurs because the family is not as much a “shared environment” as a set of niche roles that provide siblings with different outlooks. Is your spouse a fellow first-born? Or fellow baby of the family?
- A group led by Tiffany L. Frank, a doctoral candidate at Adelphi University in Long Island, N.Y., found that first-borns tend to be more intelligent (scoring higher on IQ tests), while younger siblings get better grades and are more outgoing. Frank and her colleagues surveyed 90 pairs of siblings in high school, asking them to report their grades and rank themselves against their siblings on academic performance, work ethic and intelligence. The team then verified the students’ reports and checked the results against academic records and test scores. The result? The first-borns had higher test scores in math and verbal skills, while the later born children had better grade point averages in English and math. The study concluded that first-borns probably have higher intelligence levels, due to one-on-one attention from their parents. While the younger siblings have higher GPAs, due to mentoring from their older siblings and motivation provided by the need to be more competitive than their older counterparts. Younger sibs might also be more open to new experiences because they’ve witnessed the challenges that their older siblings have overcome, offering them more security in overcoming similar obstacles.
- Finally, in February 2008, a Brigham Young Economics Professor, Joe Price (using data from the American Time Use Survey, a federal government study involving 21,000 people) reported that first born children get about 3000 more hours of quality time with their parents between ages 4 and 13 than the next sibling receives while passing through the same age range. This data averages out to about 20-30 more minutes of quality time per day. Additionally, younger children also watch significantly more TV programming than their older sibling while passing through the same age ranges.
So what can parents do with this information? Well, first of all, we can be mindful that on average results are defined as “general trends” that can be found in many families… but not all families. However, trends often point to the truth… and survey after survey shows that parents are typically “gung-ho” in reaching developmental milestones with their first child, however they are admittedly less enthusiastic with the second. In the BYU study, many parents attributed the quality time difference to “laziness” or a “lack of energy” on their part. Parents stated that they were much more likely to pop in a video to occupy later siblings, rather than reading a book. Dr. Price himself admitted to not reading as much to children 2-4 (as he did with his first), so this is clearly a natural pattern. Nevertheless, many parents were “shocked by the results” of the study. They had no idea that such disparity could exist within their own families…particularly since most considered themselves “equal opportunity” parents.
And so… Dr. Price has now encouraged parents to spend more quality time with their younger children, if possible. Some other ways to encourage younger siblings…consider letting your second (or third) child say the evening prayer, or be in charge of paying the waiter at dinner, or read a book to the family, or be allowed to go to the park with Dad all by himself this weekend. 3000 hours can be a lot of quality time to make up!