Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Study that says first-borns are smarter leads to debate among parents

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
October 24, 2013 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
John Harbaugh, left, and Jim Harbaugh became the first siblings to face each other as coaches in a major sports match-up on Super Bowl Sunday in 2013. Older brother John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens won over the San Francisco 49ers. <!-- --><!-- -->
</br></br>
Here's a look at some of the most dramatic, best-known sibling rivalries -- real and fictional<!-- -->:</br>
John Harbaugh, left, and Jim Harbaugh became the first siblings to face each other as coaches in a major sports match-up on Super Bowl Sunday in 2013. Older brother John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens won over the San Francisco 49ers.

Here's a look at some of the most dramatic, best-known sibling rivalries -- real and fictional:
HIDE CAPTION
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
Famous sibling rivalries
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First-borns get better grades in school, according to new study
  • The study's authors say parents might be easier on later-born children
  • Many parents say their first-borns are not necessarily the smartest
  • Empower children no matter if they're youngest, middle or oldest, one mom said

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and her reports at CNN Parents and follow her @KellyWallaceTV on Twitter.

(CNN) -- I am a middle child, and I don't think my older sister would be too upset to hear me take issue with the latest study to find that first-born children do better in school than us kids who were born later. (Hint: I was the kid who loved school!)

But science is science, and this study, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, follows several other studies that came to similar conclusions about the children who came first.

In the latest one, the authors found that first-borns got better grades, and concluded, based on their research, that it's because parents are stricter with the first-borns and get a bit more lax when it comes to enforcing TV rules, monitoring homework, and even getting upset over bad grades for subsequent children.

"You don't even have to have written about siblings to know that parents always relax more with the second kids and relax more still with the third kids," said Jeffrey Kluger, senior editor at Time magazine and author of "The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us."

"Now sometimes that's a good thing because you are not going to boil the pacifier every time it falls on the floor with the second and third kids," said Kluger. "The downside can be that (parents) become a bit more lackadaisical."

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

READ: Can birth order determine your career?

No surprise, I found no shortage of parents who vehemently take issue with the study and its findings.

"I personally don't think that I am 'easier' on my second-born because we have high standards for both our children," said Ashley Fitting of northern California, a parenting and lifestyle blogger and mom to a 4-year-old and 10-month-old.

"I do think that I learned from having my first, and so my second is reaping the benefits of me no longer being a complete hopeless mess of trial and error," she said.

Marc Reiner, a father of two elementary school-age girls in New York City, said while the first child receives "more parenting," he's not so sure it's the "same as better parenting."

"It's nice to think it has a positive effect, but I suspect that it might actually be the reverse and the younger kids are smarter because they pick up more from their siblings," he said on Facebook. (We should note he is the youngest of three boys.)

But first-borns such as Amanda Rodriguez of Frederick, Maryland, who said somewhat facetiously she is "way smarter" than her brother, think there is something unique about the children who come first. She said growing up she was more determined and focused than her brother was.

"My oldest son is the same thing," said Rodriguez, a mom of three boys who are 5, 8 and 11, and founder of the blog, Dude Mom. "He's extremely responsible. He's always where he's supposed to be. He's very conscientious in school, and my subsequent children are just not like that."

Her young boys seem like they're "probably intellectually smarter," she said, but they're not getting the same grades as her oldest because he's "just trying harder. He's more focused."

READ: Does birth order matter? What every parent needs to know

Previous studies, such as one I reported on back in 2007, found that first-borns had higher IQs than their siblings because they got more undivided time and attention from mom and dad before their sister or brother came along.

"Clearly we know that parents' input and verbal involvement with kids has a pretty significant effect upon their development," said Dr. Richard Gallagher of New York University's Child Study Center. "And so if it gets what you would describe as slightly watered down for older born kids, that could have an effect."

That said, Gallagher, associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, said we need to be careful about assuming that a first-born is always going to perform better academically than his or her siblings. He also said there's a takeaway here for all of us parents.

"When you know this information, it's a good idea to say, 'Hmmm. I guess I better not provide less attention in the early years to my next born kid. I guess I should also make sure that I should raise the same kinds of concerns about school performance with my younger kids that I've done with my older kids,' " he said.

When you hear that half of U.S. presidents are first-borns, and leading thinkers such as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs were born first, too, you will probably run home and start giving children numbers 2, 3 and 4 some extra time and attention tonight.

But before you do that, keep in mind that Thomas Jefferson was the third of eight kids, and billionaire Bill Gates was a middle, too.

READ: When sibling rivalry explodes?

And ultimately, how much does it come down to nature vs. nurture?

"At the end of the day, you're looking at that old scientific question," said Fitting, the parenting blogger and mom of two young kids.

"I think that you're always going to need a combination of the two, but all children are going to have a chance at something great if they have involved and engaged parents," she added.

Give all children, no matter their birth order, the gift of thinking anything is possible, many moms say.

"Empowering children by telling them that they are the best whether they're youngest, middle, oldest, I think that is really the key thing," said designer Ghada Dergham of Palm Beach, Florida, a single mom of three children now in their 20s and a season regular on DIY's "The Vanilla Ice Project" and "My Ice House."

"Feed our children with the positivity of you can do anything you put your mind to. Just be passionate about it and put your heart and soul in it and everything else will come together," she added.

Follow @KellyWallaceTV on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
While most children wait and hope Santa visits them at home on Christmas Eve, this year dozens of Denver-area children went directly to the big man's arctic home turf.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Almost 300 students who had been rejected by Johns Hopkins University received a joyous shock over the weekend when the prestigious Baltimore school said they'd been admitted after all -- but they hadn't.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
There is no way around the topic of nakedness in front of your children without getting personal and slightly uncomfortable.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Teens might be shedding their rebellious reputations: A survey says they're doing fewer drugs, drinking and smoking less. But E-cigarette use is up.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Carol Costello asks whether American culture sends a message to girls that it's not cool to study math and science fields.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
It's that special time of year, when Christmas and Hanukkah toy sellers try to put children in a box.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 0059 GMT (0859 HKT)
Foodies and travelers: They're adventurous, they have discerning tastes and they love to discover a little-known jewel. Here's how to shop for them.
CNN iReport asked families with children with developmental and physical disabilities to share what their lives are like.
December 8, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Don't know what to get parents who are always on the move or kids who seem to have everything? This is just the list for you.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 0445 GMT (1245 HKT)
You probably know LOL and OMG -- but what about IWSN, CU46 or IPN. It's all about KPC -- "keeping parents clueless."
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Out of control parties, sex and alcohol are some of the dangers kids might get into when left alone overnight. But some are mature enough to handle it. How do you know?
December 2, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Across the country and around the world, synthetic drugs are tearing holes in families.
December 2, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
There's no place like home for the holidays -- and for one little girl in Cleveland, it's the only place.
Girl Scout cookie sales are entering the 21st century. For the first time ever, Girl Scout cookies will be sold online through a national platform called Digital Cookie. This breaks the organization's ban on e-sales of Thin Mints and Samoas.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Author/actor B.J. Novak
B.J. Novak is catering to kids. His first children's book tops the New York Times list of best selling children's picture books. But here's the catch: it actually doesn't have any pictures.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0020 GMT (0820 HKT)
Hundreds of students walked out of their Oklahoma high school Monday to protest the school's response to the alleged bullying of three classmates who say they were raped by the same person.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
If it hasn't happened already, it likely will at some point: the moment you don't like one of your child's friends. What do you do?
November 22, 2014 -- Updated 2112 GMT (0512 HKT)
Students unhappy with school meals are taking it out on the first lady by sharing images on social media of lunches sarcastically tagged #ThanksMichelleObama.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2220 GMT (0620 HKT)
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. CNN's Michaela Pereira grew up in a family of five adopted girls in Canada and eventually reunited with her biological half-sister.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
It began for Nickolay Lamm as a question: What would Barbie look like if she had the dimensions of an average woman?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1735 GMT (0135 HKT)
If you think 'my teen would never sext,' you might be mistaken. Recent studies suggest it's more common than many parents might want to admit.
ADVERTISEMENT