Study Confirms That Second-Born Kids Really Are the Hardest — Especially Boys

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It’s a universal parenting truth that anyone with more than one kid knows: The minute you think you’ve got this parenting thing figured out, the second kid comes along and throws you for a serious loop. My second child is sandwiched right in between two other siblings, and he gave me a run for my money almost the second he was born — from the tantrums to the trouble making.

And while science has told us for a while now that birth order can impact both your personality and your achievements, a recent study has confirmed one more little factoid: Second kids really are harder than the rest.

Hear that? It’s the sound of parents everywhere breathing a sigh of relief that it’s not just all in their heads after all.

An MIT economist by the name of Joseph Doyle studied thousands of families with two or more children in order to find out if the second-born child got into more trouble than other kids in the family — though the sampling did primarily focus on families where the second-born was male.

And, just like that, the study had my attention: I have a girl and two boys (in that order), and while my middle child is mellowing out quite a bit, there were a few years in the throes of toddlerhood where I felt completely lost when it came to making him happy. Thankfully, it seems to have just been a phase. At least for now.

All in all, the study found that second-borns presented more “challenging” behavior. But here’s what was really eye-opening about the study for me: Second-born boys in particular were more likely to get in trouble at school and with the court system when they got older. They were even more likely to end up in prison. So if your second-born seems like the instigator in your family, it might not actually be your imagination. (And you might want to start prepping yourself for those teenage years now.)

So how come? Brace yourselves, moms and dads — you might not like the sound of this one:

“We consider differences in parental attention as a potential contributing factor to the gaps in delinquency across the birth order,” the study authors wrote.

Ugh, of course that’s why; because parents are to blame for everything that goes wrong in a child’s life, amiright?

If you’re anything like me, and immediately feel guilt for not paying enough attention to that second born of yours, give yourself a little grace. After all, parents do the best they can when they have a toddler running around and a newborn to care for. We can only try to divide the attention evenly and hope for the best. And hopefully that “best” means our kid doesn’t end up in prison.

In all seriousness, though, before you become totally panicked, there are lots of factors at play that influence a child’s behavior. As Doyle himself told NPR:

“The firstborn has role models, who are adults. And the second, later-born children have role models who are slightly irrational 2-year-olds, you know, their older siblings. Both the parental investments are different, and the sibling influences probably contribute to these differences we see in labor market and what we find in delinquency. It’s just very difficult to separate those two things because they happen at the same time.”

So while parents do the best they can, it’s the irrational older siblings who might also be playing a role in the second child’s mischievous behavior. After all, if your first big role model was a toddler, that might affect a few things.

While my middle child was totally impossible during his toddler years, I have to say that not all hope is lost. He’s turning out to be quite a kind, helpful, and totally chill 8-year-old, and if anything, he’s the biggest stickler out of all of my kids about following the rules.

The bottom line? Like all new studies on parenting, let’s take this one with a grain of salt and not beat ourselves up.

But just in case, maybe keep a close eye on that second kid of yours, and carve out a little one-on-one time if you can. You know, just to make sure you don’t have a future crime boss on your hands. (KIDDING!)

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