Multiple studies have shown that older children, on average, are smarter than their younger siblings and more likely to succeed. The reason for this has largely been attributed to parenting. But why are parents more strict on the eldest child and what causes them to soften the rules for the younger siblings?
One argument is that new parents are more anxious about their first child. “While parents of the first newborn are usually responsible and diligent, they are also tentative, anxious and inconsistent—and to make up for this they may be demanding, strict, and overprotective,” according to Big Planet. This attitude has lead to older children achieving greater success.
“Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Balmer is an eldest child, as is Avon’s (AVP) Andrea Jung. Charles Schwab, (SCHW) the oldest of two, overcame dyslexia to become one of the world’s richest. Joe Moglia, CEO of TD Ameritrade, (AMTD) was first-born of five and says he received regular corporal punishment as a child,” according to USA Today. The news source conducted a survey through Vistage, the world’s largest CEO organization, in 2007 and discovered that 43 percent of the near 1,600 responses received by people in the position of CEO reported that they were the eldest child.
Joseph Hotz, a professor at Duke, concluded in a study last year that the push for the elder child’s success comes from parents, but he believes that high demands are a result of more than just high anxiety. Instead, he theorizes that parents are being strategical about setting an example in hopes that younger children will follow suit.
“They’re more harsh with their oldest children because they want to influence their younger children,” said Hotz.
Morning Edition NPR host David Greene compared the theory on Tuesday, in a discussion with news correspondent Shankar Vedantam, to that of traffic cops. “They can’t pull over everyone who is speeding, but they hope when they do pull over a driver that other motorists are seeing it.”
It is unclear whether or not parents set up this behavioral model consciously, but Vedantam argues that the concept can be tempting because it appears time efficient.
“Parents actually don’t want to be disciplinarians,” he says. “It’s very costly, its very unpleasant, and frankly parents have better things to be doing with their time.”
Of course, this method isn’t as effective as parents may believe if older children are capable of scoring higher on IQ studies while younger siblings struggle to stay competitive.