What do Hillary Clinton, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein all have in common? Besides changing history, all three of these powerful figures are firstborn children.
While many stereotypes and anecdotes exist about birth order — firstborns are conservative and younger siblings are rebellious — hard evidence for these assertions can be hard to find. And should we accept these generalizations as being true, the question then becomes, what is the mechanism behind it?
Many studies have shown inequities between first and later-born children: Norwegian researchers using military records found that firstborns are, on average, three IQ points smarter than the next eldest child; studies from the Philippines show that later-born siblings are shorter and weigh less on average than earlier-born children; another study found that 43 percent of CEOs are firstborns in comparison to 23 percent who are lastborns.
Why the discrepancies? Many believe that firstborns are the only children for a period of time before the next eldest is born — providing them invaluable resource in the form of parental time and attention.
The firstborn also tends to uphold the status quo of the family, and is thought to be more conservative than their more unruly younger siblings. This is probably due to the fact that in the fight for parental resources, firstborns are more likely to get care and attention if they please their parents without making waves; however, younger siblings have to fight for attention from their older siblings who have already filled the conservative niche and therefore act out to win their parents’ time.
This kind of speculation, however, remains unfounded without studies to back up such hypotheses.
This is what Joseph Price of Cornell University hoped to change. His study on birth order uses data from the American Time Use Survey, administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wherein respondents are asked to recount their activities from the previous day, reporting the starting and ending time of each activity, their location and the members of their household who were present at the time.
His results showed that in families with two children, firstborns receive about 20 more minutes of quality time with their fathers and 25 more with their mother each day than a second child of the same age does.
Price asserts that the difference is a result of parents spending equal time with each of their children at a particular point in time, but spending less with all of them as the children get older.
Interestingly, Price also finds that in two-child families, “second children get 10 percent less total time, 41 percent less time reading and 15 percent more time watching television with his or her mother.” These results show that out of the already decreased amount of overall time younger siblings get, they receive less quality time spent with their parents than the firstborns. This perhaps explains the differences in grades and behavior mentioned earlier that are attributed to increased quality time, and the rambunctious reputations that younger siblings tend to have.
As mentioned earlier, younger siblings have to find different strategies to win over parental attention, since the older sibling usually tends to be more responsible and conservative. This goes hand in hand with Price’s finding that younger siblings receive less total and quality time with their parents. Older siblings are said to have “high-power strategies” in that they’re older and bigger, whereas younger siblings have to resort to “low-power strategies,” one of which is considered humor.
Voltaire, Jonathan Swift and Stephen Colbert are all funny lastborns, perhaps suggesting that younger siblings resort to humor to get parental attention when they are tied up with all the older children.
Interestingly, some studies have shown that firstborns tend to score better on conscientiousness, whereas later-born children score higher on agreeableness, perhaps because the oldest child tries to be successful to win attention and praise, whereas the youngest focuses on being more flexible and getting along with the parents in order to win affection.
Whatever the reasons may be, the various studies mentioned here provide interesting insights into the world of birth order, and mechanics of raising children. There are some caveats though, of course, as every generalization has its anomalies, and every family situation is different.
Since the studies base the differences between firstborns and younger siblings on parental resources, families with many children could show less discrepancy between each, as in each case the parents are strapped for time, money, etc. One could also argue that a parent needs to spend less time with each child after the first because they learn how to parent more effectively, and spend less time fumbling and making mistakes.
While Price’s study does give empirical data, there are still some flaws — including the usage of a survey for his data that may be unreliable or may contain hidden variables.
But the stereotypes remain, and thus leave us wondering — does our birth order shape who we are?
Tiffanie Wu is a junior majoring in business administration and neuroscience.