Parents May Have A Favorite Child Without Even Knowing It

Parents may be biased toward firstborn children.
Parents may be biased toward firstborn children.

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

When Jan Brady groaned, " Marsha, Marsha, Marsha ," it may have seemed melodramatic, but the quintessential younger sibling may have had a reason to whine -- some parents do claim to have a favorite kid, and it's stereotypically the oldest one. This concept of firstborn favoritism has fascinated psychologists and researchers alike, but is there any truth to the trope? A new study set out to see if oldest siblings enjoy an elevated status in families.

The Setup

Researchers from Brigham Young University and Pennsylvania State University interviewed 388 families in which the parents were married and the two siblings were in early and middle adolescence and no more than four years apart. The interviews took place in their homes once a year for three years. Amongst other questions about family dynamics, parents were asked, "To what extent are (younger and older sibling's names) different when it comes to school and the academic arena, such as getting good grades? Would you say that (younger sibling) is a lot better at schoolwork, that (older sibling) is a lot better at schoolwork, or are they somewhere in between?"

To see how well the children were actually doing academically, the researchers also collected the children's most recent report card each time they came for the annual interviews.

The Findings

Over the course of three years, about 48 percent of parents considered their oldest child the most capable academically, whether or not that was actually the case. Only about 33 percent considered the youngest the most capable, and about 19 percent rated their children equally. The only time parents seemed to deviate from this pattern was when the youngest sibling was a girl and the oldest was a boy -- in those families, parents tended to consider the younger sibling the most competent.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that how parents viewed their respective children's academic abilities predicted an actual difference between the siblings' grades -- if one was favored, his or her grades eventually improved more than the unfavored sibling's grades. However, the inverse wasn't true: Siblings' grades, good or bad, couldn't change how their parents viewed their academic abilities.

The Takeaway

So why did this study (and previous studies) find a bias toward firstborns? The researchers proposed that it might be because parents have higher expectations for their first child, or that older siblings are simply doing more advanced work in school and therefore seem more competent and impressive. But they also added, "By the time later-born children hit learning milestones, parents may view their achievements as only to-be-expected." (Cue Jan Brady.) The thing is, younger siblings in the study tended to follow their parents' lead and actually underperform in comparison to an older, favored sibling.

Of course, there's no reason for parents to assume that they must be favoring their firstborn child and screwing up younger siblings for life. Perhaps, though, these findings can just be something for parents to keep in mind as they try to play unbiased cheerleader to all their kids.

Cute Kid Notes