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Sorry, Firstborns

"You've got it easy. You're the baby." I got that line ALL the time when I was growing up. And I never agreed with it. Mom punished me plenty. And by the third child, she was pretty wise to the things I'd try to pull. Then again, I can't think of any person who would have described my mother as tender-hearted.

Well, for all those folks who've said -- or thought -- that line, a study out of Duke, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland agrees with you. Not only do firstborns likely face more discipline -- it's actually good for the family for them to do so. "Our study finds that some parents are successfully using this strategy of influencing their younger children by stopping their older children's risky behavior," said Lingxin Hao, one of the study's authors.

The study, published in this month's Economic Journal, points to evidence that parents are more likely to withdraw financial support from older siblings who drop out of high school or become pregnant than from their younger brothers and sisters who do the same.

There is a down side in all this that the study points to, however:

"Tender-hearted parents find it harder and harder to engage in 'tough love' since, as they have fewer young children in the house, they have less incentive to uphold reputations as disciplinarians," said Ginger Z. Jin, the University of Maryland author on the study. "As a result, the theory predicts that last-born and only children, knowing that they can get away with much more than their older brothers and sisters, are, on average, more likely to engage in risky behaviors."

Does any of this discipline theory ring true in your house?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  April 18, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Discipline
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"You're the oldest, you need to set the example."

I used to hear that from my parents when I was growing up and it would make me livid with rage. Now I say it to my husband and it makes us laugh.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | April 18, 2008 8:34 AM | Report abuse

My oldest used to always ask first - get a game down from the shelf, get a snack, watch tv, whatever. Flash forward a few years, and I overhear him and his younger sister - "We should ask mom first", "No, it'll be fine".... she learned very quickly that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission. Son caught on real quick, too!

Posted by: prarie dog | April 18, 2008 8:45 AM | Report abuse

I definitely expect a lot from my oldest. I do try to keep my expectations consistent amoung them all, but catch myself saying things like "You need to set an example" and "You have to be more responsible" and all the things I swore I would not do :)

I also notice that my oldest is much more cautious than the little ones (the littlest has no fear at all). I think that I followed my poor first child around the playground keeping her safe and ended up making her paranoid!

They all have such different personalities, too. I can give my oldest "the look" and it is enough to stop her in her tracks, the little one just give it right back. I find I have to disciplin ethem all a little differently to have it work.

Posted by: Mom of 5 | April 18, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I found that the first and second kid usually are disciplined, but the third, 4th and more kids are not. I knew many people in bands who dropped out of college who were the youngest in a large family. I knew only one only child who went that route, but his father died when he was in high school and his mother retreated inward for years while he raised himself.

Posted by: DCer | April 18, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

All three of us boys did "risky" behavior. First, not so much. Second - the most and me, the youngest - I waited until I was an adult!

Posted by: charlie | April 18, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Does this birth order pattern apply to messed-up druggies?

Posted by: Interesting theory | April 18, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse


"You've got it easy. You're the baby." I got that line ALL the time when I was growing up."

You do have a lot of "baby" characteristics - immaturity, whiny, sloppy, needy for attention & approval. You talk about your Mommy a lot....

Posted by: Proof of the theory | April 18, 2008 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I'm an only -- and actually, I think my experience was a little different than the study implies. You're both the first born and the last, and my mom didn't put a halt to risky stuff I tried to do so much for "you need to set an example" or to be the disciplinarian as "you're the only kid I've got, I don't want to lose you."

My mom was known as one of the stricter ones to my friends' parents, which did work to my advantage when we all wanted to go somewhere when I was a teenager (party, bowling alley, movie, etc.) and I was allowed to because my mom knew I could handle it and the other friends' moms trusted my mom's judgement (i.e., if I could go, it must be okay for their kid to go too -- not always the case, but seemed to work for the most part).

However, there was also nobody to cover for me or distract attention from what I was doing, so I couldn't get away with SQUAT if my mom didn't approve of it. (Although this also meant that the rare thing I did manage to get away with was pretty darn well-plotted to be able to be pulled off.)

Posted by: Only, Not so sure of the theory as it applies to my situation | April 18, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Proof of the theory - go troll somewhere else, please.

Posted by: Real people blog | April 18, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I agree that parents have different expectations for their kids based on the birth order. I was the oldest of 3 growing up and heard the "set a good example" speech more that I care to remember. My younger brother who is the third and last born and the only boy was spoiled rotten. He got away with everything. Well flash forward over 30 years and now I am a responsible adult. My middle sister, who flew under the radar, is a responsible adult. My little brother is a drug addict and spends more time trying to get around the rules than to live by them and have a good life. My parents didn't do him any favors by not setting any boundaries for him.

Posted by: California Mom | April 18, 2008 11:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm an only child. My dad was strict and quick to spank and punish, but he wasn't around very much since he worked most of the year at national park. Even after my parents divorced when I was 7, I stayed pretty much the same kid. I was just always well behaved, didn't get into trouble and my friends' parents always trusted them when they were with me.

Now my husband (the oldest of 2) had parents who had lots of rules that he had to follow until after his freshman year of college. Mostly the standard things you might expect. He almost never got to use the car, had to get a job since they didn't give him money, had a curfew, etc.

His sister (4 yrs younger) had almost no rules and worked at a p/t job her mom got for her. Now she's 25, has a college degree, but has no job, still lives at home and acts like she's 12. The in-laws don't know what to do with her. She doesn't engage in "risky behavior", but she has no ambition either.

I don't know -- is that personality, birth order or failed parenting? I'm just doing my best to make sure that our only child grows up more like his parents (ambition, jobs, interested in the greater world) and not like his aunt.

Posted by: MadisonMama | April 18, 2008 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Have you read The Pecking Order by Dalton Conley? Apparently his research didn't bear out birth order stereotypes...but the amount of time and attention, and $ available for different siblings *was* important. Spacing of children also affected their outcomes. According to Dalton, birth order stereotypes rarely play out in the 'real world' outside of the family setting. But families, in his opinion, do tend to focus resources on specific individuals. Tangentially related: my uncle is, sociologically speaking, an only -- his sis (my mom) and bro were 16 years older. He jokes that he got the best of all worlds: parents who were older and mellower, with loads of free time, more established financially, and the benefit of extended family. My mom and the other older bro sure used to think their much younger bro was *spoiled rotten* -- but he didn't engage in many risk-taking behaviors (not his temperament - which I think is a powerful component to any child-rearing situation) and is awfully successful. Also, a question -- it seems like for the researchers, only children would fit the oldest scenario not the youngest of many scenario?

Posted by: MamaBird | April 18, 2008 12:55 PM | Report abuse

"You're the oldest, you need to set the example."

That was said to me also, WorkingMomX. That, plus the fact that I was allowed to do fewer things than my younger sister and brother at the same ages always frosted my cookies. Oh well, I turned out all right, as did they, and other than feeling fleeting resentment when I think about it, it really doesn't matter.

Posted by: Lynne | April 18, 2008 1:22 PM | Report abuse


"That, plus the fact that I was allowed to do fewer things than my younger sister and brother at the same ages always frosted my cookies."

I was a teenager and I had to go to bed at the same time (in the same room - Yuck!, and share an army cot bed with one sibling - double Yuck!) as my 3 younger sisters - 8 pm.

Posted by: Mmmmmm | April 18, 2008 2:16 PM | Report abuse

My younger sisters *definitely* benefited from having me for an older sister. They got to date younger, got to drive more frequently in high school, and generally had fewer expectations placed on them.

Our brother, the baby of the family, was pretty much seen as doing no wrong. When he put even one toe over the line, he had three older sisters who'd quickly pounce and get him back on the straight-and-narrow. So the doing-no-wrong wasn't so much due to parental discipline as older-sisters discipline.

He turned out awesome. He's the only one of us who's still married to his first-and-only spouse (she's a genuine Georgia peach, and suits him perfectly), who's never had an eating disorder, sex addiction, long stretch of umemployment, or other life disasters or serious mistakes.

Of the three sisters, I'm the most stable. Married 20 years (my first marriage lasted about 3), and neither of my sisters is currently married. I don't know their incomes, so I can't say who's making the most. But I have been working for the same company for 16 years, and neither of my sisters has ever stayed in the same job for more than 5, so my employment has been the most stable by a long, long way.

It's kind of weird to see something in my life that almost fits the studies and statistics.

Posted by: Sue | April 18, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

My two sons definitely don't fit, though.

Older son has autism, so he really likes to know and follow the rules. There's hardly ever much need for harsh parental discipline - just tell him the rule, have him repeat it back (to make sure he really got it), and he'll follow that rule forever.

Younger son requires far more, and harsher discipline. He's definitely figured out the permission-or-forgiveness equation. So, when he doesn't have permission, we have to come down on him like a ton of bricks, or we'd be turned into doormat parents.

The other challenge with younger son is lying - autistics rarely (if ever) figure out lying as a way to get away with stuff - so we were completely unprepared when younger son started to lie and blame his older brother for things he'd done. We're still working on that, and the rule is that telling a lie will get you more punishment than the thing you were lying about in the first place. He's slowly getting more honest about his misdeeds.

Posted by: Sue | April 18, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Mmmmmm, you had it harder than I did, that's for sure. While I had to go to bed almost as early as the younger ones (I was in high school and they were in elementary school), I at least had my own room. You have my sympathy!

Posted by: Lynne | April 18, 2008 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Another good book is "The New Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are" by Dr. Kevin Leman that discusses these things.

My wife and I are both the oldest of three (I'm oldest of three boys, she's oldest of three girls) and we've had many discussions about how traits of our middle siblings are similar and how traits of our youngest siblings are similar.

We've also noticed how our three boys exhibit many of the birth order traits as well.

Posted by: reswob | April 18, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I was the baby and it was NOT fun. For me it meant not ever being old enough to hear any of what was actually going on in the family, shuffled around, hushed voices when I walked in- and this continued into my teens.

As well, my older sister was the first grandchild on both sides and was deeply spoiled from it. My mom tried to cut it off, but it still happened and me being the sister, I saw it more than the others.

Yes, my sister constantly said I was spoiled and got away with murder. But I saw it as her doing what she wanted and dealing with the consequences, while I hid things better.

We're both fine good adults these days...but I can say I'm not nearly as close or trusting of my family because of how they treated me as the baby and did everything I could to prove independence from them.

Posted by: Liz D | April 21, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I think it's all moot by the time you're an adult, but as the youngest by 8 years and 11 years, I was the baby, but was expected to catch up to the other two and be at their level. This meant that many things I did as a child were looked down at as "childish" and annoying. I developed a real self-image problem early on and still struggle with it now. But it's easier to let the whole birth-order thing go -- it's more important to focus on being a good adult and a good sibling. But I admit, the whole assumption that the baby gets spoiled just makes me bristle -- certainly wasn't in my family.

Posted by: Jo | April 21, 2008 9:53 PM | Report abuse

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