real life

First born, best dressed?

This photo was taken before the fierce competition for affection began

First borns are smarter. More out-going. The trail blazers.

Middle children are not quite as intelligent and brimming to the hilt with neuroses. But they’re creative and crafty.

The youngest are craftier still, manipulative. Spoiled. The benefactors of parents who finally got their technique ‘right’.

True or false? Science can’t really tell us whether there is any truth to decades of persistent discussion about the effects of birth order on the intelligence and personality traits of children, later adults. But word knows they have tried. And the evidence of late is, without declaring it an open and shut case, becoming a litter stronger.

First, the theory.

There’s quite a bit to it but the elements make intuitive sense.

First born children are monopolists of parental love, affection and teaching. They’re also raised in a home with only adult influences (generally) and this leads to an above average exposure to intellectual stimulation. Then, when the next child arrives they also benefit from ‘the tutor effect’ – an established theory that teaching someone helps you learn more efficiently.

The second child does not have this same monopoly. The third child has even less and so and so forth.

The effects of this assumption are blown out of proportion, of course, by the number of children in a family. An only child is not (according to the theory) as smart as a first born because they don’t get the benefit of teaching the siblings that come after them.


In a family with two kids, there is a 50 per cent chance of being a first born. But only a 33 per cent chance with three kids.

That’s important, as the Scientific American points out, because it skews quick facts like ’21 of the first 23 astronauts in space were firstborns’.

So, what’s the science like?

Vague, although it’s been getting better.

The science regarding the intelligence link to birth order is a little more promising. In a 2007 study of 250,000 Norwegian military conscripts, it was established that those born first were on average 3 IQ points ahead of the second child, who was in turn one IQ point ahead of the third. It doesn’t sound like much but as Time Magazine relates:

First born? Most likely.

…the effect can be enormous. Just 2.3 IQ points can correlate to a 15-point difference in sat scores, which makes an even bigger difference when you’re an Ivy League applicant with a 690 verbal score going head to head against someone with a 705. “In many families,” says psychologist Frank Sulloway, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and the man who has for decades been seen as the U.S.’s leading authority on birth order, “the firstborn is going to get into Harvard and the second-born isn’t.”

But the study also goes to pains to point out that this result seems to have more to do with social rank in a family, and not birth order. Simply put you could be the second born but the effective first, if an older sibling passed away when you were younger. Or you might be the third born but favoured in every conceivable way ahead of child one and two.


But what about personality?

Perhaps the early bird really does get the worm?

Parents around the world will tell stories about their ‘typical middle child’ or their ‘confident firstborn’ but is there any evidence to suggest a child’s personality is in any way – even a little bit – related to the order in which they popped into the world? Not a great deal. Not to say that isn’t the case, it just hasn’t been proven conclusively yet.

Anecdotally, there is a ridiculous amount.

The consensus in some as-yet not very solid science is that first  borns are assured of their place in the world, confident and conventional. Children who follow later are the opposite; rebellious in the sense that they have to be creative for parent’s attention, love and – in some cases – food.

In an evolutionary sense, this is a throwback to the oldest of concepts: the competition for resources.

What is your experience, are you a typical middle child, a high achieving eldest child, spoiled last born or are you bucking the trend?

If you want to explore the issue further, the SBS Insight program is running a discussion on the show tonight at 7.30pm. Here’s the preview:

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