Are First Born Children Really Cleverer?

If you ask the economists from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the answer is evidently YES!

According to a new paper titled Strategic Parenting, Birth Order and School Performance by V. Joseph Hotz and Juan Pantano, published last October 2013, the order of the children’s birth, affect their performance at school.
I, of course, personally disagree with their findings. I’m the youngest of 11 children, and I won’t simply accept that my big brother is cleverer. (Although, I won’t say it to his face, at 38 years old, I still quake if he looks at me with disapproval.) However, doesn’t practice make perfect? If so, as my parents had so much practice, I should be the perfect offspring.

But apparently, despite my protestation, it seems that there are some truths to the belief that firstborns are smarter. In their paper, Hotz and Pantano cited surveys published in 1990-2008. In the survey, 33.8% of mothers surveyed believe that their firstborns are the best students in the class while only 31.8% believed the second child is best in class. As for children who were born fourth, only 27.2% of those surveyed think they are best in class, while 3.6% think they were near the bottom of the class, higher than the 1.8% of mothers who think their firstborns were bottom of the class.
(Hmm, I always thought parents are biased towards the oldest offspring, now I have proof.)

However, note that most of their analysis use mothers’ perception and not on a true measure of their children’s true performance at school. It will be interesting to see whether the mothers’ perception remain sound if tested against the children’s actual performance.

The big question is – ‘Is there really a merit to comparing siblings’ performance at school?’ Does it really matter that child A achieved higher grades than child B? Is it better to focus on the children’s uniqueness, than the difference in their school performance?

It’s down to the parents
Hotz and Pantano concluded in their paper that the reason firstborn children perform better than their younger siblings is because parents supervise and monitor them closely. In that, I agree. In fact, their conclusion is something all parents already know.

Any parents who have more than one child know that they are not as strict with their second child. Not out of preference, but simply because looking after two or more children, is more challenging than looking after one child.
But most parents who have grown up children also know that school performance doesn’t necessarily equal better life. So, though this research is interesting, it’s only a useful reminder that parents should avoid comparing their children.

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