First-Born Children are Smarter Because Their Parents are Hard on Them


A new study finds that first-born children perform better in school, have higher IQs, and tend to be considered more accomplished by their parents, proving definitively that you should buck tradition from now on and opt instead to promise your middle child to a mysterious man in exchange for a magical favor.

According to the study’s data, 33.8 percent of mothers polled stated that their first-born was “one of the best students in the class,” and only 1.8 put their children at the bottom. With each successive child, the former number fell and the latter rose — only 31.8 percent said their second was one of the best, 29 percent said the same of their third, and 27.2 percent rated their fourth in the top. Conversely, the “near the bottom of the class” numbers rose: 2 percent rated their second the worst, 2.1 the third, and 3.6 the fourth. The critical moms of the world are right, though — the study found that the first-born children have consistently higher GPAs and test scores.

Why are first-borns the best, though? Is it because they use up all the brain juice, leaving none for all who follow? Is it because they get all the attention until their brothers and sisters begin to exist? No, but good guesses (you probably were not first born if you made these conjectures), say the economists who wrote the study: it’s because parents tend to discipline their oldest the most harshly to instill fear and respect in the lower ranks of the family. Yes, that sounds like very sound parenting methodology: MAKE AN EXAMPLE OF THE ELDEST SO THE REST WILL FALL IN PLACE.

From the paper’s abstract:

A key insight of their paper is that birth order effects arise endogenously as the result of viewing parent-child interactions as a reputation game in which parents “play tough” when their older children engage in bad behavior — tougher than caring, or altruistic, parents would prefer — in an attempt to establish a reputation of toughness to deter bad behavior amongst their younger children. Thus, we hypothesize that one mechanism that gives rise to birth order effects is this form of strategic parenting and responses by their children implied by game-theoretic models of reputation in repeated games.

Study authors V. Joseph Hotz and Juan Pantano find that parents are more involved in the academic performance of first-borns; they’re also more likely to enforce strict rules and punishments. However, their conclusion is a bit of an extrapolation — it seems more likely (to me, at least) that parents are far more chill with their later-born children because they feel burnt out and/or less anxious about policing their children’s behavior. But maybe that’s because I’m terrified of the idea of “parenting by example.”

“First Children Are Smarter — But Why?” [The Atlantic]
Image via Getty.

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