The Role of Birth Order in Academic Performance

Are first-borns better students?

Twice this past week I was asked about the correlation between birth order and academic achievement. I find this fascinating, so I spent some time digging through studies on the subject.

Just for some background, Alfred Adler, a psychologist who is comparable to Freud and Jung, was the first to classify first-born children as the most motivated, highest achievers, and most responsible. Middle children seem comfortable blending into the woodwork, being neither stars nor low achievers academically, but also the most competitive. Last-born children are seen as least motivated and lowest achieving in academics, but highly social and creative. Of course, this is a vast generalization and there are many exceptions. Last-born rocket scientists, first-born basement dwellers, and middle child stars of the high school production of Pippin are certainly out there.

An only-child is usually somewhat adult-like, probably from spending so much time with adults, and stressed out from so much attention. I continually hear from my only-child students that they wish they had siblings to keep their parents from being so hyper-focused on them. Academically, they seem to be high achievers for the most part.

As a last-born, I was hoping to find old Alfred’s theory was out-of-date, so I was pleased when several I read claimed there was no correlation between birth order and academic performance. But, as I came upon more recent research, it seems this is changing. A 2011 study by Joseph Holzs from Duke, and Juan Pantano from Washington University, concluded that “those born earlier perform better in school.” These findings were the same as a 2010 study published in the Academic Leadership Journal online, which found, “there is a significant difference between the mean achievement of first-borns and latter-borns.” 

Okay, so an achievement gap exists. But how about IQ? IQ and achievement don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. A harder working student will do better in school than a slacker with a higher IQ. So back to the studies. Two papers published in Science and Intelligence found eldest born and only-children to be about 3 IQ points higher than their sibling. They said this was significant but I didn’t buy it. It’s the difference between, let’s say, a B+ and an A- on a test.

Why the achievement gap and slightly higher IQ? Well, researchers don’t think it’s biological, they believe environmental factors account for the gap, specifically, the family dynamic. Oldest siblings are more responsible and higher achieving due to the undivided parental attention before other siblings came along and higher expectations placed upon them. Each time a sibling is added to the mix, parental time is “diluted.” In the first study I mentioned, the researchers determined parents were more lenient with later siblings, spend less time, and do not monitor their schoolwork as closely as first-born siblings.

What I got out of this is that, as usual, they are blaming moms. Well, I have news for those researchers … I pay tons of attention to my younger son, he just doesn’t ask as much, and I am every bit as tough on him, wait, am I? Well, when he was little he was only allowed to watch educational ... no, that was my older one, the younger one watched nothing but Power Rangers. Oh no! It is all my fault! That has to change immediately. I’m going to start reading MacBeth with him tomorrow. I’m sure he will love the extra “mommy” time.


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