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Why Mom and Dad really were harder on the eldest child

Guess what, firstborns? Mom and Dad really were harder on you.

But it was all about the strategic payoff.

It's the sibling debate that never gets old. The eldest child says to the youngest: You had it so easy. The youngest argues that they never got to do anything. And the middle kid – they just got, well, lost in the middle.

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A new study, titled Strategic Parenting, Birth Order and School Performance, by two U.S. economists says the eldest child in a family did indeed get tougher rules from parents – and higher marks because of it. Using data from the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (a study, incidentally, which Statistic Canada also used to do, but has since cancelled because of budget cuts) the researcher found that mothers said they responded more severely when their firstborn brought home a bad mark, as opposed to younger siblings. And kids who came first in the birth order were more likely to have rules about watching television and more vigilance about homework.

The researchers tracked data first collected in 1979 using surveys from mothers. They couldn't get specific marks in those findings, but in a later cycle, the survey did ask mothers where their kids ranked among student in their class. While that means they are relying on a parent's perception, from that they deduced that being subject to more intense parental vigilance may have translated, at least in part, to better marks for the firstborn.

There are all sort of theories why this happens, the economists say, and as an Atlantic article breaks down. The firstborn gets more undivided attention, or parents are just too tired by the time Nos. 2 and 3 come along. And hence: Kid No. 1 learns some important skills because they have to help their little brothers and sisters with homework, etc. (As well, if parents divorce, they usually do so after the first child has enjoyed the benefit a two-parent home, so younger siblings may have more upheaval to handle.)

As Derek Thompson of the Atlantic points out, the economists appear to suggest that parents are hoping a "reputation" for rules will, in effect, trickle down to the younger kids.

But given the time-crunch facing most families these days – and the accumulation of extracurricular activities – that seems a bit too intentional. It may just be that signing one school agenda is manageable, but keeping on top of two or three is simply overwhelming.

Or maybe, by round two, parents have learned that, in the long run, the poorly punctuated English essay in Grade 4 probably won't hold that much sway over university-bound transcripts. And that sometimes, in the rush-and-go of family life, cuddling on the couch in front of Modern Family might be time better spent.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More


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