News Sinead Moriarty

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Now siblings really can blame parents for a firstborn's edge

Published 29/04/2014 | 02:30

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Does birth order really matter? It seems so. Researchers have often told us that first-born children are the most likely to succeed, but a new study has revealed that firstborn girls are statistically more likely to be the most motivated and highly qualified of their family.

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Not only that, but firstborn girls are 13pc more ambitious than firstborn boys.

Sheryl Sandberg, JK Rowling, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel ... the list of successful firstborn women is endless. Eldest boys haven't done too badly either with all 12 men who have walked on the moon being either the eldest or only child.

The new study, Sibling Configurations, Educational Aspiration and Attainment, followed 1,503 sibling groups and 3,532 individuals. It excluded families with only one child or twins and it took into account parents' education and occupation.

It concluded that firstborn children were 7pc more likely to achieve. They were also 7pc more likely to aspire to stay on in education than their younger siblings.

Feifei Bu who conducted the study at the University of Essex says: "There are several possible explanations for the higher attainment and ambition of the eldest, it could be that the parents simply devote more time and energy to them – it could be they are actually more intelligent. For me, I tend to lean towards the theory that parental investment is at work here."

All first-time parents will know that this is true. When your first child is born they get all of your attention, devotion and energy. Eldest children are in the unique position of having a period of exclusive parental time. They don't have to share their parents with anyone else.

Mr Bu says that children who receive more investment will excel intellectually and academically. The implication is that non-firstborn children from large families are not going to be successful because the resources are diluted. As siblings come along the attention becomes divided and diminished. Parents will now find they are too exhausted to read 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' to child number two and/or three. Number four will be lucky if he or she ever sees a book.

New parents spend hours each day stimulating their eldest child with educational toys ordered from far-flung places. Fast forward a few years and those same parents will be quite happy to let the younger siblings play with an empty milk carton or watch Peppa Pig on a loop.

But younger siblings need not despair, if there is a four-year gap between you and your elder sibling, you might be alright. The study found that parents who want high achievers need to leave a gap of at least four years between each child. Mr Bu says: "The wider the gap, the greater the chances of success. And I would say that the larger age gap between the children, the better the qualifications."

That's all very well if you start having a family at 20. But with the average age of mothers in Ireland now at almost 32, there isn't time for big gaps between children.

The study shows that firstborns are 16pc more likely to attend further education than their younger siblings, so how can these siblings compete? How do they make their mark and find their place?

According to research, younger siblings tend to maximise their differences to avoid direct competition and make it more difficult for parents to compare them to their elder brother or sister.

They develop different roles within the family. So a child with a very academic older sibling might try to be successful in the area of art or sports. Or maybe they'll be the funny one in the family or the kind one or the thoughtful one.

Middle children learn to be more flexible and sociable, and to compromise and build coalitions, while youngest children are more likely to question the order of things, and develop a 'revolutionary personality'. Many last-born children choose a completely different path to their older siblings to avoid direct competition.

With three children born very close together, I think I'm in for an interesting time!

Irish Independent

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