Strict parenting helps first-borns do better in school, study finds

In what comes as no surprise to eldest children everywhere, researchers found that parents are toughest on first-born children. (Any other first-born kids have the impulse to call your younger siblings and say, “Told you so”?)

But all this extra nagging, er, attention to older children’s homework and TV habits means that kids born earlier in a family's birth order perform better in school.

This is not exactly new info: loads of studies show that first-born children have higher IQs, do better in school, and are perceived as more successful by their parents. But this paper applies an economic look at what psychologists have tackled for years. And it links a strict parenting style to academic success.

“It’s very, very interesting,” says Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not affiliated with this paper. “It is not inconsistent with what we know in psychology.”

Researchers V. Joseph Hotz, a professor of economics at Duke University, and Juan Pantano, an assistant professor of economics from Washington University in St. Louis, looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979, which includes details from women about all of their children.

The moms provide info that seems consistent with what’s known about birth order and academics; the oldest child performs best, the next oldest, a little worse, the next oldest, a little worse yet, and so on. The information from the longitudinal study is self-reported, meaning the moms say how well their children do rather than provide test scores or report cards.

“This study stands out because it has the data that others don’t have,” says Frank Sulloway, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, who did not participate in the study.  

“What this study actually has is a lot of data about what the mothers and fathers are doing [with their children].”

Most studies about birth order and intelligence show that first-born children are smarter than the subsequent ones, but don’t explain why. Meanwhile, theorists have come up with some ideas: the dilution hypothesis, for example, says that second child has less time with and attention from the parents, and the third has even less. Because Hotz and Pantano had data about the children’s intelligence and information about how the parents treated each child, the authors could test hypothesis against data and explain how theories played out with numbers.

“Economists view parents as using rewards and penalties to manipulate their children's performance in school and these rewards/penalties provide differential incentives across birth order,” writes Hotz in an email.

And, while the researchers admit that the dilution hypothesis might have an impact on intelligence based on birth order, they believe the strongest contributor to older children doing better in school is how much the parents watch them.

First-born children likely live in a tightly regulated house, with specific rules and scrutiny about everything from TV watching to homework. And, moms said they were more likely to closely watch an earlier-born child who brought home a bad report card. The researchers suspect that all this extra attention to first-born children helps them perform better academically. While they think parental involvement explains a lot, they believe other influences might contribute as well.  

“In the paper, they primarily attribute [smarter, older children] to parents being more strict, but they do acknowledge it can be attributed to [other] factors,” Sulloway says.