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Birth Order Revisited:

Are Oldest Children Smarter?

Week of February 16, 2004


            Some years ago I took part in an educational program that selected members based on their leadership potential.  One of the seminars included a discussion of birth order and the impact it has on oneís success in life. 

            The theory went that first born and only children are dominant and more confident, youngest children tend to be less responsible and more dependent, while those in the middle are apt to be, technically speaking, flakey. 

            Acting on impulse, I asked for a show of hands from my fellow wannabe leaders:  19 were first born or only children, eight were middle children, and three were the family babies.  Theory proven, I thought, if somewhat unscientifically.

            Not so according to New York University sociology professor Dalton Conley, author of ďThe Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why,Ē set for a March 2004 release by Pantheon Books.  In an interview with the New York Times, Conley called birth order ďnext after astrological signs as peopleís favorite folk explanation for why things turn out.Ē

            Iím not big on most pop psychology but birth order always made a certain amount of sense to me.  Iíve seen it at work, though as an oldest child myself it may simply be convenient for me to accept.  My sister likely has her own theories on oldest brothers, which you will read about as soon as she gets her own column. 

            Sorry; my inner first child got away from me.  Still, Conley contends the most important familial factors in an individualís success are family size and the time and resources allotted to each child, not birth order per se.  As each child is added, fewer resources are available for the others.  The first child gets more attention until the second comes along, the oldest two get more until the third arrives, and so on. 

            Oldest children experience at least some time as an only child or as one of just a few while younger kids never do.  In that way, Conley argues, birth order has an impact but only as a drain on resources.

            Birth order theory is a sacred cow in some circles and wonít go away easily.  Previous studies have even purported links between birth order and intelligence, claiming older children and those from smaller families tend to be brighter. 

            Conley has the company of Joseph Lee Rodgers, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma, in disputing that idea.  Rodgers believes earlier research was off base because it compared children from different families rather than siblings in the same broods.  When you focus on differences within a single family, birth order fades in importance.

            Rodgers found instead that parents with lower IQs tend to have larger families, which may have lent to the notion that children from large families arenít as intelligent as those from smaller clans.  This will likely offend folks with several children, but Rodgers didnít say which came first, the litter of kids or lowered parental IQ.  Speaking for myself, Iím certain Iíve gotten dumber with each child. 

            Conley concludes that too much goes into building an individualís personality to neatly pin it to a single factor like birth order.  ďThe family is not a haven in a harsh world,Ē he believes.  ďIt is part and parcel of that world, rat race and all.  Inequality, after all, starts at home.Ē

            It starts before that, as children of the same parents are born with different gifts and abilities.  As hard as one might try it is impossible for parents to treat their children the same, because they arenít.  Depending on their individual needs, it probably isnít even a good idea.  






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© 2004 Brent Morrison