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To the Eldest ...

"Scientists have found that first-born children are smarter than their brothers and sisters. It appears they are more likely to succeed in business, too."

So reads the lead of a USA Today story this week touting first-borns as more likely to become CEOs. The newspaper, finding no scientific study examining birth order of CEO's, employed CEO organization Vistage to survey its members about their birth order. And they learned that 43 percent of the survey takers were first-borns. The paper then conducted a smaller survey, from which 59 percent of the CEOs were first-born children.

As if eldest children need another reason to gloat to their siblings about how they're better/smarter/bigger/stronger because they're older!

Seriously, though, USA Today makes some good points. Many first-born children get their parents' undivided attention for some portion of their lives. They look after their younger siblings. They order them around and learn to "lead" their siblings to do what they want. I suppose that builds their confidance and leadership skills such that they grab the high business bar more often.

But what this youngest child wants to know is this: Are first-born twins/triplets/quads, etc. more likely to become CEOs than their sibling(s), too? And how do only children factor in?

What differences in your children do you attribute to their birth order? Are there traits kids develop based on where they fall in the family pecking order?

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By Stacey Garfinkle |  September 7, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  The Debate
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Along with birth order, traits seem to have something to do with EXPECTATIONS of parents.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 7:38 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 7:59 AM | Report abuse

No doubt. I am way smarter than my brother.

Better looking, too.

Posted by: Dude | September 7, 2007 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Inexperienced parents always assume that their child is the brightest child in the world. After all he or she is the brightest (and only) child in their world. The parents tend to push that child harder. It is only with the experience of the eldest child that they can more readily look at the performance of their subsequent children.
I am an eldest child. I also agree with the effect of the supervisory role that an eldest child has with its siblings.
This is an exercise in sociology, so it looks at percentage effects over large groups of individuals.

Posted by: John Dickert, Mount Vernon Farms | September 7, 2007 8:12 AM | Report abuse

I wouldn't say smarter b/c of the number of CEOs. I'd say more driven. As mentioned, first borns have more responsibility and are usually pushed by parents to succeed. A middle child, who could be smarter, is usually more laid back and not as concerned with the high pay check and 'making it' in the corporate world.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 8:21 AM | Report abuse

My husband and I are both the youngest of 3, and the first 2 are 1 girl and 1 boy on each side. This is important, I think, because we're truly both just bonus babies. We aren't the only boy or girl or the 3rd boy or girl. We have the most education and best jobs of the bunch. We've also been in MUCH less trouble. I think being the youngest is easiest because everyone has relaxed so much by that point.

We only have 1 child, but plan on 3. We keep jokingly warning our infant, "Being the oldest is HARD." On the other hand, she's the only one who'll ever get our undivided attention. That makes me kind of sad for those to come.

Posted by: atb2 | September 7, 2007 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Well, actually, the Swedish study that recently came out confirmed the part about birth order and intelligence (at least, as measured by I.Q. -- don't want to get into a debate about that, though). However, when you average it all out, oldest children are, on average, just a few I.Q. points higher than the average for the population.

So, those of you who are smarter than your older siblings, please don't come on here writing about that. We're just talking about averages. There's enough variability that plenty of younger siblings have higher I.Q.s than their older siblings.

By the way, Stacey, generally speaking, researchers find that only children are like oldest children.

Posted by: Ryan | September 7, 2007 8:51 AM | Report abuse

I hate labels! All they do is is either give false hope or create despair if you don't fit into the description. Just love your kids and do the best you can for each one.

Posted by: mom of 2 intelligent outgoing kids | September 7, 2007 8:56 AM | Report abuse

How does that percentage differ from the number of first-borns (and onlies) in the population? Without that information this statistic is meaningless.

It is true that first-borns have _slightly_ higher IQ scores than their younger siblings, and that IQ scores decrease (again, _slightly_!) the farther down the birth order you go.

Posted by: Liz Miller | September 7, 2007 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Since IQ is determined by DNA, maybe young eggs & sperm = smart kids.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 9:57 AM | Report abuse

My younger brother is a bum. We are only 2 years apart in age. I'm a lawyer and he still lives at home with my Mama.

Posted by: Nina | September 7, 2007 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Wasn't the exact some topic posted on this blog a month or two ago?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Yawn...this was discussed over at On Balance a month ago when the study first came out.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 10:17 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: HR | September 7, 2007 10:28 AM | Report abuse

"My younger brother is a bum. We are only 2 years apart in age. I'm a lawyer and he still lives at home with my Mama."

That doesn't mean you are smarter than him.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 10:43 AM | Report abuse

The statistics on these sorts of things just does not seem to add up to the conclusions that are reached, the same is true of the Norwegian study they talk about with IQ.

Some problems:

-The article makes no mention of corrections for single children. Do these count as the "eldest"? How many in the sample are only children?

-The statistics on the larger, more independant survey indicate that "43% were born first, 23% born last and 33% landed somewhere in the middle." This indicates two things, one that 4% of those surveyed did not answer this question (or provided an ambiguous answer, and another that the question may have been phrased poorly. How many of those polled were the second child and also the last child? This is significant because if you consider that 56% are not first born, there is a possibility that second born children are more common as CEOs than first born.

-What about twins?

-The controls on the sample size are also somewhat troubling. Why not take the efford to poll a large sample size of CEOs that are not all part of the same professional organization?

Posted by: David S | September 7, 2007 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I believe each families situation is unique. I have an older sister who is more educated than I, however, I have a better paying job with more tenure than she. She is an introvert and does not friends. She has lost a couple of jobs to do her lack of social skills and inability to get along with coworkers. I'm an extrovert and enjoy meeting new people. We were raised in the same house with loving parents. Yes, they were strict but they also encouraged us to be individuals and pursue are individual interests. Her being 5 years older thought that I should have the same interests as her. To this day she is very jealous if I get a promotion, bonus, buy a new car. There is some room for error in this study not all older siblings are smarter or better than younger ones. You have to look at the entire picture.

Posted by: Youngest of 1 | September 7, 2007 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Take every study with a grain of salt and don't get your knickers in a twist about it. It's job security for people with advanced degrees. The one that really made me laugh stated people who live in expensive houses are less likely to be obese than people who live in cheaper houses. Well, DUH! Why not state 'people who live in Beverly Hills mansions are richer than people who live in trailer parks.' Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Then there's the one that said women who remain single are smarter than women who get married. Now that's a reliable study.

Posted by: TGIF | September 7, 2007 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I used to love messing with psychology professors when they'd talk about birth order and its effects on kids. My own family is just weird--eldest two are adopted. Eldest child has severe physical and developmental disabilities and lives in a group home, now nearly fully bedridden, second child is the only boy out of six kids is plenty smart but with learning disabilities undiagnosed until he was an adult. Big underachiever there, and no great shakes on IQ testing. Next four children all biokids, all pretty close in the IQ department. "Smartest" is definitely the third of the four biokids, but no professional desires. She could be raking in a huge salary as an engineer, but chooses to be a FT homeschooling mom. Eldest of the four biokids was also a classic underachiever (as in notes from teacher "she's not achieving her full potential.") and would love nothing more than to be a SAHM and buried in her creative pursuits, but with no husband and kids she instead works FT and does quite nicely. Biokid two and four got nearly identical scores in all standardized and IQ tests, but biokid two has always had more "drive" than biokid four, who is, however, WAY more talented creatively. FWIW, biokid 2 makes the most money of all six kids.

Birthorder studies are a load of hooey when you try to apply them to real life situations. There are just too many variables at play in a real family for them to have much meaning.

Posted by: Sarah | September 7, 2007 12:19 PM | Report abuse

This is a misleading statistic. Most people reading this would jump to the conclusion that first-born children are more likely to be CEOs. That's hardly what this is saying. The survey looked at a sample of CEOs and found that a large percent of them were first born. It did not look at a sample of first-borns and see how many ended up as CEOs. To get at that question, in addition to the statistic cited, we would also need the overall percentage of CEOs in the population, and the percentage of first-borns among non-CEOs.

Posted by: Handanhal Ravinder | September 7, 2007 1:17 PM | Report abuse

My sibs and I kind of match the study results - I'm the oldest, and always got the highest IQ scores - by about 30 points. But my people skills aren't much to cheer about, and most of my career I've deliberately avoided climbing the corporate ladder. Even got back off when a manager pushed me into stepping onto the first rung. I don't want to be responsible for anyone's work but my own.

In terms of real-world smarts or social skills, youngest and only brother is way, way up there, and third sister is the most people-skilled individual I've ever met, even though her IQ scores were the lowest of the bunch. She's also dyslexic and ADD, but she's the only one with a master's degree, and I'm betting that she'll be the first one of us to achieve a million-dollar net worth. Just an incredible drive to succeed.

DH and his older sister don't match the study. My two sons don't match the study. My father and his older brother don't match the study. My mother and her older and younger sisters don't match the study.

For whatever it's worth - and others have already said it - these birth-order studies just don't have much use in the real world. Individuals have way too much variability.

Posted by: Sue | September 7, 2007 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't we also use this to suggest that most parents become LESS effective as they have more children and get older and have more experience?

Posted by: Liz D | September 7, 2007 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Pretty sure this birth-order stuff was debunked by later studies. I think Malcolm Gladwell mentioned it in Tipping Point. First-borns are more assertive, leaders, etc., but only within the family. Outside of that dynamic, birth order has no statistically significant effect on life outcomes.

Posted by: Becky | September 7, 2007 2:58 PM | Report abuse

How many "oldest" children were constantly being told, "yes, it is your fault...your the oldest". Raise your hands.

Oldest children are generally (in real life, not studies) given greater responsibility, less latitude, have greater expectations put upon them, and generally get less freedom (ergo more discipline) than their siblings who come along when mom and dad are getting more tired, and less interested in parenting.

I think it's the "Sibling Order School of Hard Knocks" that boosts the first-borns higher up the ladder of success.

Posted by: Nita | September 10, 2007 7:25 AM | Report abuse

Frankly, I'd agree with posters who said it has everything to do with how hard the eldest is pushed, and how much he/she internalizes that requirement that he/she perform up to ridiculous expectations or -- and this appears to be a frequent alternative -- rebels against it. Eldest girls are also most likely to be strippers.

But to the question at hand, I had twins first, a boy and a girl. The boy is 7 minutes older than the girl, but she was in the "A" (dominant) position throughout the pregnancy. She was larger and stronger than he was. I think she got chicken at the last moment and pushed him out first.

But I digress: my girl has those classic "oldest" traits, and my boy has classic "middle" traits. I think they are evenly matched IQwise, but she has a ridiculously easier time following instructions and sitting still. I have no idea whether being born a multiple influenced how they behave birth-order speaking, but I can tell you that it radically changed the way that I behaved. I couldn't possibly sweat any of the small stuff when they were babies. I worked 50 or so hours a week, came home and dealt with screaming in stereo when they were colicky and the heart-lung monitors screaming all night long with false alarms (mostly). I think that parents of multiples may have a skewed approach to their first babies, because there are more and you simply cannot lavish that attention on them. With that said, I don't think at all that the extra attention accounts for the two or three extra points on IQ tests: I think it is that focus, that drive to achieve that keeps the oldest paying attention to the test even when the middle child has said "screw this - I'm drawing pictures." I am not convinced that the hot-house of exclusive parental attention is a good thing at all.

And yes, I'm an eldest. I think that it is difficult to be happy in life if you are an eldest.

Posted by: bad mommy | September 10, 2007 8:54 AM | Report abuse

My eldest son seemed to think that it was his "divine right" to control (have) the business his father started. It took active determination on my part to snap my established behavior patterns--and thus to encourage my second son to assert his own rights to half of that business. And I had always prided myself on treating each of my three kids as "individuals!" Both are now successful in earning customers for the product their father invented--but in two separate businesses in two separate countries.

Posted by: Alice_M._Wahl | September 10, 2007 9:56 AM | Report abuse

The fallacy is the assumption that CEOs are smarter than average. To succeed in business requires not more brains but less scruples.

Posted by: Lionel Bartram | September 10, 2007 3:06 PM | Report abuse

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