The joint study between the University of Edinburgh and the University of Sydney went gangbusters, no doubt due to the fact that firstborns everywhere began sharing the study, as well as tagging their younger siblings in the comments. Just so they knew their place I suppose.
As a non-firstborn, my initial reaction to this study was of course “GTFO”.
We non-firsties are used to implications that we’re not the smartest. The media seems to have some sort of pop-science obsession with birth order, probably because we all love comparing ourselves and being told “who we are”. Google birth order effect and you’ll get hundreds of web pages telling you who you are based on where you sit with your siblings. If only it were that easy.
Who you are – and how smart you are – is not determined by something as simple as “I was born first so I’m the smartest derrr”. There have long existed birth order stereotypes: firstborns are smart leaders, youngest children are spoilt but charming, and middle children are neglected, but exceptionally gorgeous misfits (I may have made up the “exceptionally gorgeous” part). But pigeonholing people, whether on sex, race, culture or birth order, is rarely effective.
People are not simple. You can’t definitively say all firstborn children are the smartest any more than you can say all Australians love Vegemite, or all Queenslanders support Pauline Hanson. In fact, our perceptions of what our birth order “should” make us, can often end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As Professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes on Psychology Today,
“By assigning these stereotyped birth-order roles, which may interact with gender roles, parents create self-fulfilling prophecies among their brood. You come to feel like the leader, if you’re a first-born, because you were handed this role early in your life.”
I’m dead curious to know how many of the articles on the study were written or commissioned by firstborn children. Because these are the kind of high-fiving headlines the research was reported under:
“The Eldest Child Is Smarter Than Their Younger Siblings, And Here’s The Proof” (Elle)
“Finally it’s settled! First-born children really ARE smarter” (DailyMail)
Which, while excellent examples of clickbait, are hardly indicative of the full story. For context, the research used data from the U.S. Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, where almost 5,000 US children were monitored between pre-birth and age 14. These children were tested every two years on subjects such as vocabulary, reading, and their ability to match letters.
From this, the research concluded that eldest children tend to score higher on IQ tests and, therefore, are “smarter”.
Hold up there though – let’s get a few things straight that all those clickbait-y articles chose to ignore in an attempt to get your sweet, sweet clicks. First of all, the study only assessed children up until the age of 14. Who’s to say later-born kids don’t get a huge cognitive spike age 15? I mean, the brain doesn’t even fully mature until you’re 25. Add on to that the fact that intelligence can vary throughout a person’s life and it becomes clear that declaring eldest children the “smartest” because they score well on cognitive tests at 14, to be a fairly premature assumption.
Despite this, the majority of media outlets reported the study as if eldest children were, hands-down, the smartest children (to ever exist I presume). Only The Guardian and their article, “First-born children have better thinking skills, study says”, reported the study in a way that more accurately conveyed the research.
If you’re still with me at this point you’re probably thinking “OK so maybe there was some sensationalist reporting but the facts don’t lie sugar”. Except that while the facts don’t lie, they do ignore certain elements. By only testing the cognitive abilities of the children, the research implies that “intelligence” can only be measured by IQ tests. Um, sorry but what about social skills? Or emotional intelligence? These are both recognised as contributing factors to a person’s overall intelligence and success, but are ignored in the joint UE/USyd study.
The worst outcome from the simplistic reporting of this study however, is the message it sends to anyone who isn’t the eldest child. The message that despite your hard work, despite all you may have achieved, you will never be as smart (or as successful) as your older siblings because of your arbitrary order of birth. Imagine living with that chip on your shoulder – how much harder it is to achieve anything when it is implied that you will never be as good.
So sure, out of those 5,000 kids studied there might have been a trend that indicated firstborn children to have a slight intellectual advantage – that doesn’t mean the research applies to every child or every family. More important, as indicated by Professor Krauss Whitbourne, is how parents treat their children,
“Encourage them to teach each other, to define their own identities in the family, and to avoid labelling themselves based on their birth order. Don’t let the lives of your children be dominated by the random forces that caused them to be born when they were.”
We don’t need to pit siblings against each other like there’s some kind of sick competition for parental love. We don’t need to live our lives according to popular stereotypes of who we “should” be. So keep your chins up my younger born brethren – you’re just as capable as your older siblings.
And besides, they’ll die first.