Are older siblings be more accomplished than their siblings?


This conversation was sparked by the publication of a new study on sibling configurations and looking at whether aspiration and achievment of children is dependent on ‘order’ in the family. Interestingly, the researchers in this case also found a gender difference – specifically, that eldest girls aspire to, and achieve more academically than eldest boys. Naturally enough this sparked much media debate

Well, the media hype over this study one was extraordinary – rarely have I seen so many pictures of Beyonce, Clinton, Oprah – everywhere! Here’s one piece  – a list of the world’s most powerful women, a lot of first borns in there!

When I do an initial session with a client, I always take note of where in their family they are placed. This is a topic that has fascinated psychologists and psychotherapists for many years.

One of the key things about this study is that it confirms previous theories that the first born, regardless of gender, ‘achieves’ more. This study includes aspirations, and shows a correlation between aspiration and achievement in education. It’s unsuprising, but nice to have confirmed. And what really got people talking and theorising was the gender difference element which showed that girls in this study aspired and achieved more than the boys.

By quite a margin.

Q: Are girls pushed more academically than boys anyway?

Not sure about that, that would depend on too many factors to mention. It can happen that girls are expected to work harder because there is an assumption on their part and on the part of their parents (based on the reality of what is happening in the ‘modern’ workplace) that they will have to work harder and achieve more than their male counterparts in order to achieve the same recognition and /or salary. (Girls become aware of this early on themselves, perhaps that has an impact on their academic choices). For this reason, in my experience, girls are often given more encouragement to perform academically than boys, being perceived as needing more encouragement.

Q: Are first-borns attention and reward junkies because their ‘firsts’ (first step, first words etc) were celebrated on a grander scale? Might that get more them focused on passing exams?

Good insight and this is probably more influential than your last question.

Yes indeed I have seen first borns respond more readily to both praise and criticism from their parents. Their early achievements are a big focus for the parents, the extended family and even friends, as are their early mistakes.The quality of feedback, attention, learning are all very high for a first baby.

If a second or more child comes along what can happen is that competition enters the mix spurring the child to perform more in order to receive the same quality feedback as they used before the sibling diluted the attention. What this study also found is that the gap between the birth of the eldest and the second also has a bearing on the difference in academic achievement and aspiration. The larger the gap of course, the easier it is to divide and to tailor attention among siblings.

My bottom line guess is that firstborns achieve more simply because of parental investment.

Q: Subconsciously might parents put more pressure on their eldest?

Subconsciously being the key word, yes, and again, probably coming from  pressure  they’ve put on themselves to be the perfect parent to the eldest, whereas by the time number two arrives, most parents will have realised that there is no such thing as a perfect parent!

Q: Why might first born girls be more ambtious than first born boys?

They possibly learned from an early age that they need to work harder to get the same feedback from society. It is very clear very early on to children that in a lot of workplaces men are more present. They are valued more, they are listened to more attentively and are taken more seriously. A first born girl may be better equipped to deal with this, she may be more confident in her abilities having received undiluted attention for a time. Also, because she is the eldest, she may have been given more responsibilities than her siblings, and has therefore may have learned more seamlessly to believe that she is capable.

Q: Is there a danger that birth order can lead to difficulties for the first born females (become overly anxious under pressure to succeed?)

It seems to me that first born girls and boys assume almost parental roles within the family, depending on parental age, age gaps between siblings, parental health status, sibling health status etc. If there is an addiction in a family for example, it is often the older child who assumes the caregiver, protector or enabler role. If this child is a girl, there may be more pressure on her to do so because of the gender bias that girls are better at nurturing. In this way yes, there may be difficulties or pathologies coming down the line, where the teenager and young adult puts enormous pressures on him/herself to be perfect, to perform well, to care-give, to the detriment of their self care.

Do quote me on this: These are trends observed in a study, not certainties. The authors themselves pointed out that the study needs to be replicated with a bigger sample size, and an older population.


And dear reader –  just to add at the end – I’m happy to report that she did indeed quote me on that:) Thank you Chrissie for another interesting conversation!

Chrissie’s article is here!


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