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First-Born Children Get All the Good Stuff, Like New Clothes and the Drive to Succeed in Life

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

My parents never would have let my big sister pick her nose on camera.

I’m not saying my older sister has done better than me in life. I don’t have to. It’s just a fact.

We’re equally healthy and happy, which is all that matters. But she’s just done better. She got better grades and her degrees are shinier (plus she has three of them compared to my two). Her house is bigger. Her cars are fancier. Her kids wear nicer clothes. Actually, my kids’ clothes are just as nice, but that’s because they wear her kids’ hand-me-downs.

It’s not a contest, but if it were, she wins.

I’m guessing it’s due to what new research as revealed: first-born children have it made.

According to a new study, first-born children are smarter and have higher self-esteem than their younger siblings because their parents demand more of the former. That’s according to economists V. Joseph Host of Duke University and Juan Patano of Washington University.

“There are birth order patterns to what we accomplish,” Host told Yahoo Shine, “but these accomplishments are influenced by many different factors, including how we are raised by our parents.”

Host and Patano studied the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and found that parents are tougher on their first-born children who bring home poor grades compared to their later-born children with similarly bad grades. Younger children also get to watch more TV, play more video games and participate in more activities that don’t include homework and studying.

The result? Oldest children are more likely than their younger siblings to be at the top of their classes. The study found parents try to cement their own status as disciplinarians with their first kids and figure their younger kids will figure that fact out by osmosis.

This was all mostly true in my house when I was growing up. My sister had the (figurative) whip cracked on her. My parents had expectations of me, too, but they were much lower. I was happy that I didn’t have to try as hard to fit into their vision of success for me, but it also made me feel like I wasn’t as worthy of even more. I’ve always felt like I was naturally smarter than my sister, but she worked so damn hard there was no way here grades weren’t going to be better.

This didn’t work out completely in our respective favors, however. My sister confided in me later on that she was sometimes envious that my path had more freedom than hers. She suffocated a bit under our parents’ expectations for her. She succeeded — in becoming something professionally that she didn’t necessarily want to be. Me? I’m doing exactly what I had hope I’d be doing. Even if it isn’t as lucrative, I’m happy through and through.

Still, there’s a part of me that wonders how and what I’d be doing if I had been pushed a little harder. My parents claim — and I mostly believe them — that they did push me but I pushed right back. I had (and still have, probably) the classic younger-child traits of stubbornness, rebellion and sociability. Nobody was putting this baby in a strictly-academic corner. But there’s a little piece of me that felt badly about not being pushed even harder by my mom and dad. I felt if I were really, really special, they would have made me do and be more. Even if I still ended up being and doing what I wanted.

I’m not blaming my parents for anything, however. Especially as I look at my own young daughters and can see how this happens. My older daughter is proving to be exceptionally bright (says the totally biased mom). My younger daughter is a doll and a gem and a love but I’m not convinced she’s going to be as brilliant as her older sister. I can see how I might push my older daughter to fulfill some kind of potential, and where I might let my younger daughter just relish in her cute awesomeness. Of course they’re only 2 and 5 years old, and I know way too much to fall into stereotypes (please, God?). So, we’ll see how it turns out.

I guess what’s good, as a parent, is to be aware of our own potential biases and patterns and decide if we want to fight against them for the sake of our kids. Nurturing their self-esteem is critical, and making them feel as if they are worthy of doing well in what they want to do is just as important, I think, as them actually doing well. Then there’s the definition of doing well, but that’s in the eye of the beholder anyway. Which turned out to be a good thing for me, less-shiny car and all.

Photo credit: Meredith Carroll

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