Birth Order & Educational Achievement Research Paper Starter

Birth Order & Educational Achievement

(Research Starters)

Birth order is an important factor that helps unveil the mysteries of human behavior. This paper provides an investigation of family relationships and corresponding individual traits that pertain to birth order placement, and how such dynamics impact educational functioning. The firstborn child, who receives a tremendous amount of praise and attention fares exceptionally well in school, whereas later-born children operate at much lower levels. For example, middle children deal with psychological issues of low self-worth and identity crises, whereas the youngest children live in chaotic households that do not necessarily promote learning. The Confluence Model and The Resource Dilution Model shed light on the matter by providing explanations that unearth the relationship between family constellation and performance.

Keywords: Adaptive Cognitive Style; Confluence Model; Deidentification; Innovative Cognitive Style; Resource Dilution Model; U-Shaped Equity Heuristic


The role that birth order plays in shaping behavior has proven to be of significant consequence from ancient to modern-day civilization. The academic literature offers several examples of how firstborn children have upheld supremacy across a variety of contexts (Sulloway, 2007). For instance, the mortality rates of children in the 19th century occurred in epic proportions, and first born children grew to become more physically robust and customarily outlived their younger, frailer siblings (Penn & Smith, 2007). Presumably this was because firstborns were regarded as precious commodities and were indulgently pampered, nourished, and treated in the highest regard by doting parents. Additionally, preferential treatment adorned upon firstborn children has been a practice ceremoniously observed by royal families who have created primogeniture (Hurwich, 1993) infrastructures through which the eldest child is bequeathed successive sovereignty, a most eminent honor.

Even in the animal kingdom, there exist examples of species that favor the survival of firstborns within a family group, such as Verreaux's Black Eagles (Tennesen, 2006), who can only sustain one young chick a time. Thus, upon the arrival of subsequent chicks, the eldest eagle bludgeons his baby sibling to an untimely demise, receiving ostensible consent from parents who stand by and observe what would otherwise be deemed an abomination against nature.

According to an old adage, no two children are raised in the same household, regardless of overtly similar circumstances that impress upon their mutual cultural, religious, neighborhood, and even familial influences. Alfred Adler, a prominent 20th century psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, not only agreed wholeheartedly with this sentiment, but helped blaze a trail of groundbreaking research and anecdotal knowledge that surrounded the ways in which birth order characteristics molded each individual's personality by sculpting both their strengths and insecurities alike (Croake & Olson, 1977; Watkins Jr., 1992). Since Adler's time, a series of noteworthy researchers have allied their efforts into excavating information on birth order including Frank Sulloway and Robert Zajonc. Provided here is an overview of unique family dynamics that pertain to the assets and struggles of each birth order, and how such factors imbed themselves into the context of academic erudition, or learning styles.

In his theory, Adler identified four distinct sibling placements (i.e., firstborn, second born, middle child, youngest) although the trend in today's society leans toward smaller families (Rogers, 2001). A systemic lens that utilizes circular causality will serve as the framework for this overview, which opposes the notion that behavior follows a linear progression and rather is created by multiple forces that are constantly giving and receiving messages in a roundabout, circuitous fashion (Feinauer & Patterson, 1993; Neimeyer, 1989). For example, although parents ideally respond to the unique needs and characteristics that each child possesses, they also synergistically create those children's needs and characteristics. Hence, each family member contributes toward, and is on the receiving end of birth order manifestations.

Further Insights: Birth Order Theory

The Firstborn Child

The firstborn is a marvel, indeed (Lemen, 2008; Sulloway, 1996). When parents give birth to their eldest child they are constantly in awe of the miracle of life, of the special and delicate forces that came together to create such wonderment. They bask in the glory of their creation, and enthusiastically undergo all the developmental milestones side-by-side with their budding child: the first smile, the first step, the first word. It is difficult for parents to detach themselves from the single-minded focus extended toward such age-appropriate feats, and the newfound feelings of amazement that the firstborn infuses into the hearts of parents renders frequent proclamations of how brilliant, beautiful, funny, and/or obedient their child is in comparison to others. Not only are parents bowled over by the amazing triumphs their children accomplish, but they themselves are entering into new territory; the birth of their first child marks their entrance into parenthood. Although each subsequent child may be viewed as irreplaceable in his or her own right and undoubtedly draws out a specialized set of parenting skills, only the firstborn confers upon parents the illustriously distinguished titles of mother and father.

This extraordinary experience lends itself to the exceptional accomplishments enacted by firstborn children. In deference to Robert Merton's self-fulfilling prophecy, which suggests that people are capable of that which they believe they are capable of (1948), firstborns enter into situations at a higher starting point than their later-born peers. Equipped with the high levels of poise and self-assurance that their parents have instilled since their inception, and reeling from the positivity that parents themselves are experiencing from their newly donned parental identities, firstborns face the world with confident leadership skills, and an unfailingly steadfast work ethic. In other words, parents set the bar exceedingly high for firstborns, who in turn rise to the occasion academically (Iacovou, 2007; Wenner, 2007). Moreover, the fact that firstborns receive so much one-on-one stimulation from their parents contributes toward a high verbal prowess (Westerlund & Lagerberg, 2008) and mature demeanor (Families and Intellect, 1976; Zajonc, 2001; Zajonc & Markus, 1975), both of which translate quite propitiously into a classroom setting.

Benefits of One-on-One Parenting

Mothers and fathers of firstborns tend to be hyper-vigilant about their parental duties (Forer, 1969), even prior to the delivery of their beloved offspring. Expectant parents peruse through bookstores to thoroughly research the latest childrearing books that review up-to-date "do's and don'ts" associated with healthy, happy children, while households are impeccably transformed to comply with child safety standards. The methodical, systematic parenting style that parents of firstborns employ often transcends to their child, and it is not surprising that firstborns excel in academic environments, where regimented discipline equates with high levels of success.

Kirton's theory suggests that there are two types of cognitive styles that people possess: adaptive, in which firstborns excel, and innovative, mastered by later-borns (Skinner & Fox-Francoueur, 2010). Adaptors prefer to work in a structured, scheduled, rule-oriented milieu, whereas innovators feel stifled by such planned orderliness, and instead prosper under more flexible, creative, outside-the-box parameters. This knowledge may revolutionize our understanding of birth order and intelligence, since most IQ tests and educational environments investigate students' abilities against the backdrop of the adaptor's norms. Perhaps this is the reason why firstborns score three points higher on standardized tests compared with later-borns (Janecka, 2010), which may reflect the biased nature of the tests in terms of intellect.

The intoxicating high that firstborns experience, alas, comes to an end once a younger sibling graces the family unit with a very noticeable presence (Dunn & Kendrick, 1980; Dunn, Kendrick, & MacNamee, 1981; Field & Reite, 1984; Kendrick & Dunn, 1982). The birth of the second child can cause an uncomfortable jolt that upsets what the firstborn interprets as his sense of equilibrium, or the copious amounts of attention that had been lavished upon him or her. Nevertheless, the firstborn feels as though he has been "dethroned" and takes a while to adjust to the new sibling. This transitional period can be quite strenuous, for both the jealous firstborn, as well as exhausted parents who go to great lengths to reassure their first youngster while nurturing his or her younger newborn. The silver lining in this temporarily arduous cloud is that the situation tends to turn upward once the big brother/big sister role has fully been absorbed. Gripped with the knowledge that he or she is now the caretaker for the newest family member, the oldest, ideally, assumes such a role with gusto and eagerly takes the young sibling under his wing. The protective firstborn is thrust into the role of teacher/mentor. While on the surface this may appear to benefit the younger child, who has a built-in bodyguard and tutor, the actual beneficiary is the firstborn, whose cerebral development becomes tremendously advanced when assuming this surrogate role (Zajonc, 2001).

Firstborns in School

In school, firstborns may gravitate toward positions that will allow them to demonstrate and refine their superb leadership skills (Jarrett, 2003), such as class president or the captain of the chess club, as well as activities like the debate team whereby they can exercise the enhanced verbal dexterity that they have cultivated since birth (Berglund, Eriksson, & Westerlund, 2005). And although a number of factors correlate with whether or not a person attends college, including socioeconomic status and parental education, Wark, Swanson, and Mack (1974) found a positive relationship between firstborn children and a desire to pursue post-secondary schooling. Once enrolled in a university, different behavioral patterns among the birth orders persist and contribute toward academic success or failure. For example, whereas binge drinking on college campuses have skyrocketed to outrageous proportions (Mitka, 2009), firstborn students are more abstemious and refrain from spiraling out of control (Laird & Shelton, 2006). Surely this conscientious sensibility advances their longstanding record of successful scholastic achievement.

The Only Child

The only child is essentially an eldest child who lacks subsequent siblings, and is oftentimes lumped into the same category as firstborns. However, there are marked differences that discern the two placements from each other. Namely, throughout the course of his or her life, the only child remains in an environment that consists primarily of adults, and therefore only occasionally modifies his language to accommodate younger audiences. Utilizing sophisticated vernacular and prudent mannerisms which model the adults in the household, the only child is indeed wise beyond years, a trait which has both pros and cons. The benefits include higher IQ scores and a learned comportment (Polit, Nuttal, & Nuttall, 1980; Travis & Kohli, 1995), while the shortcomings entail an inability to relate to same-age peers (DeKeukelaere, 2004) and failure to divulge in the lighthearted and frolicsome exuberance of childhood. Moreover, without the presence of youngsters, only children never have to develop the art of sharing material belongings or emotional attention (Shulan, Guiping, & Qicheng, 1986).

The Middle Child

The middle child's arrival into the world is quite different (Forer, 1969). More experienced parents now create less of a fuss about all the "firsts," in terms of first smile, step, and word; they are no longer "firsts" to seasoned parents. Whereas the eldest child received acclaim for even the smallest of advancements, the middle child deals with very different parents, who must now divide their attention equitably among two children. Hence, the middle child is never able to relish in the undivided adoration that the eldest initially received. Although it might be assumed that the middle child would not fret about a lifestyle he never knew, this second-class status nevertheless seems to haunt his existence, and deep down he pities himself for being the overlooked and underappreciated runner-up. Parents of middle-born children have to cater to two children who are (at least theoretically) different in temperament. Feeling spread thin and often overwhelmed, second-time parents are more physically, emotionally, and mentally drained, and less apt to make overzealous aggrandizements toward their second-born child. Consequently, it is not uncommon for the middle child to become aware of and disgruntled at the lack of parental attention (Fritz, 2006).

Gender Dynamics

According to Hertwig, Davis, & Sulloway (2002), a U-shaped equity heuristic exists to describe parental investment, which suggests that mothers and fathers devote the majority of their energy to the eldest and youngest children. The firstborn is showered with praise because of his dutiful fulfillment of parental expectations, whereas the baby of the family symbolizes the fact his parent's reproductive window of time is about to expire and he therefore embodies their evolutionary "last chance" (Rhode et al., 2003). As is the case with all birth order patterns, gender plays a part in how the dynamics transpire (Harris & Morrow, 1992; Kristensen & Bjerkedal, 2010). According to the U-shaped equity heuristic, the middle child syndrome may be exacerbated or relieved based on whether or not that child replicates the gender configuration. For example, if the gender sequence of a family of three children follows a male-male-female or female-female-male arrangement, then the points of the "U" become reinforced. This is because both the firstborn and the lastborn represent the parent's novel experience in rearing a boy and a girl for the first time. Parents need to be aware of unbalanced treatment they may unconsciously afford their middle children, for it is well substantiated that parental involvement and school success parallel each other extensively (Barnard, 2004; Ray & Smith, 2010).

The Middle Child in School

Financially speaking, the strain of having a second child naturally further depletes family resources (Beld, 2006), which results in hand-me-down attire and understated, less showy or used playthings. Furthermore, parents are generally lackadaisical about the potential hazards associated with raising a child, as they were able to glean insight from the firstborn into the resourceful resilience that accompanies childhood (Colburn & Sorenson, 2010). Whereas firstborns were ushered to the hospital with minor scrapes, cuts, bruises, and coughs, parents assume a more relaxed stance about monitoring both safety concerns as well as staying atop everyday transactions such as bedtime readings, homework help, and quality time. This more relaxed attitude trickles down and eventually permeates the middle child's temperament; they are...

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