Do parents have different expectations of their children, based on their birth order? Many oldest children would say yes. Researchers wondered if there were any truth to that assertion, so they put it to the test. What's different about the way parents raise their oldest child?
"Parents are definitely harder on their firstborn children," says Dr. Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a child-and-family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. "In a way, the firstborn child is a guinea pig — practiced on. Most parents know nothing about parenting and learn by trial and error," she adds.
From the moment that first child is placed in your arms, your hopes and dreams for his future begin to take shape. Over the years, through trial and error, parents do their best to guide that first child through everything from kindergarten homework to college applications. Each step is new and causes the parents to venture into unknown territory. Should they give time-outs for bad behavior or take away internet or TV privileges for a bad report card? Parents find over time that more severe punishments don't always mean better results, hence the trial and error. Mothers involved in the study were way more likely to see their firstborn child as a high-achieving child.
Researchers wondered if there were something to this theory that parents were harder on their firstborn. The team of V. Joseph Hotz, professor of economics at Duke University, and Juan Pantano, assistant professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis, took a look at data gathered from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979), in which mothers included various details about each of their children.
What these moms shared about their children seems consistent with what researchers already suspected. The oldest child performs best, and each subsequent child does a bit worse academically, and so on down the line. Moms participating in the study were asked to self-report information about their children, meaning that the moms relayed the academic success of their children rather than providing test scores or report cards as backup.
So what's going on, then? Researchers observed that moms and dads may just parent a little less and put less pressure on their later-born kids. Those children who are born first probably get the most hands-on parenting. Parents are more likely to have stricter rules for their firstborn children for everything from watching TV to curfews to jumping on the bed. Parents are much more likely to be actively involved in their firstborn child's academic performance, according to the survey. Firstborn children are much more likely to have rewards and punishments centered on school performance than are later-born children in the same family. Hotz and Pantano concluded that parents start off on their journey of parenthood with tougher rules and a reputation for being strict, which may cause younger siblings to watch their step, even though their parents are more relaxed later on.
At what price does this supposed success come?
"Some firstborn children become successful because their parents were harder on them," shares Dr. Walfish. "Many firstborn children, however, emerge into adulthood with more psychological issues and unfinished business with their parents. By this, I mean that many firstborn kids were lectured too much, disciplined too hard, overprotected and expected to be role models and responsible for their younger siblings," adds Dr. Walfish.
She goes on to say that many issues like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits and anger may linger into adulthood and remain until dealt with.
"This can leave scars and problems for the adult child. I have also treated many firstborn children who are more successful because they were pushed harder. However, those are the folks who come to me for help because they don't seem to enjoy their success. They are not running toward a goal but rather away from the ghosts of a relentless parent's driving voice," Walfish adds.
Parenting is a difficult job, no matter how you choose to raise and discipline your kids. Finding the style that works best for your family is an evolving process, and it does change with each child who is added to the mix. Take time to think about punishments and consequences with each child, and ask yourself if your kids are being treated similarly. You can't change birth order, but you can take a fresh look at your parenting style now and then.
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