First Born Children Are Smarter, But Only Because Parents Spend More Time With Them

If you’ve ever had more than one kid, you know by the time you’ve had your second or third, that the once obsessive interest in teaching them how to build blocks, solve jigsaw puzzles and speak a second language has seriously started to wane. It’s takes all your effort just to get them dressed in the morning, let alone sit around teaching them how to write their name.

A new study published in Journal of Human Resources1 suggest that first born children are smarter. Whilst many first-born siblings are sitting around nodding, clearly pleased with this assessment, it may not be because they are naturally graced with a high IQ. It may in fact it be a case of nurture over nature.

The researchers at Edinburgh University1, in collaboration with the team at Sydney University, have a theory for why the eldest child is so darn clever. Parental engagement.

500 children were tested every two years in reading and picture vocabulary tests. They looked at the children’s intelligence from pre birth to age 14. Startlingly, the results found that first-borns achieved higher IQ scores from as young as one year old.

Encouragingly, all of the children were found to receive the same level of emotional support.  But the difference they noticed was that parents spent less time doing brain stimulating tasks with their younger kids. First-borns on the other hand, who had their parents’ undivided attention, generally received more help with tasks that develop thinking skills.

First born children scored higher on all tests including reading, matching letters, names, reading single worlds aloud and picture vocabulary tests.

The researchers gathered a range of different information from family history to economic and environmental data. And what they found was that the more children parents had the more they changed their parenting behaviour.

Dr Ana Nuevo-Chiquero, of Edinburgh University’s school of economics, said:

“Our results suggest that broad shifts in parental behaviour are a plausible explanation for the observed birth order differences in education and labour market outcomes.”

Parents with younger children spent less time involved with music, did less reading and generally all those crafts you used to get excited about with the first-born, got pushed to the sidelines. And frankly, it’s hard to get excited about playdough in your carpet and hair the second time around. After all who needs more mess to clean up? It’s hard enough finding matching shoes for your young tribe as you crawl around under the sofa looking for the missing one.

The research showed that the advantages for first-born children started early in life with the results showing increased ability from birth to three years old. Those differences increased slightly with age with higher performance in comprehension skills, reading, maths and verbal skills.

It’s a tricky situation for parents who no doubt have their hands increasingly full with the more babies added to their troupe. The first-born by definition has a parent’s undivided attention at least until the next child comes along.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Middle children you’ll be pleased to hear have a knack at becoming the family peacekeepers and the youngest tend to be more social and creative. Which is all the more reason to understand that whilst IQ is important, it certainly doesn’t make up the entirety of a person’s gifts or personality.

And if you’re really worried, you can always get back on the floor and start doing puzzles. If you’re under the sofa looking for lost shoes anyway, you’ll save yourself an extra trip.


[1] The Early Origins of Birth Order Differences in Children’s Outcomes and Parental Behaviour. Jee-Yeon K. Lehmann, Ana Nuevo-Chiquero, Marian VVidal-Fernandez. Journal of Human Resources 0816-8177

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