Why first-born children get the most quality time

Older children benefit from thousands more hours spent with their parents, according to new research. Does this explain why first-borns are often more successful than their younger siblings?

You may think you treat all your children equally, but research suggests that’s not quite the case. Just as your younger children may have suspected, it’s the oldest who come out on top. We parents are spending an extra 3,000 hours of quality time with our first-born children than our younger ones.

The research, which was carried out by economics professor Joseph Price from Brigham Young University, showed that, between the ages of 4 and 13, first-born children get far more quality time (125 days more) with their parents than the next sibling gets when he or she passes through the same age range. The research may help to explain why, as other research has claimed, older children tend to perform better on IQ tests, stay in education longer, get better exam results and also make more money.

“We’ve known for a long time that eldest children have better outcomes, and these findings on quality time provide one explanation why,” said Professor Price, who used data from the American Time Use Survey, a federal government study involving 21,000 people.

Professor Price – whose research was published in the Journal of Human Resources - added this his research will surprise parents, who tend to think they split their time evenly across their children. His research does show that most parents do this successfully on particular days, but not when you look at the overall time spent.

That’s mainly because the amount of time parents spend with their children on a daily basis declines as the children grow older – oldest children get more time because they grow up when there is more family time overall. And as children benefit hugely from time spent with them, these increased hours may translate into more success in later life.

Interestingly the research also demonstrates that, as the family gets older, more time is spent on activities – such as watching TV together – which are not considered to be “quality” time. Younger children between the ages of 4 and 13 watch more TV with their parents than their older siblings did at the same age. This may be because of the demand from the older child to do something he finds interesting (when he was little, he may well have been reading a book or playing a game with his parents instead!). But there is something parents can do, as Professor Price explains:

If your goal as a parent is to equalise outcomes across your children, you should be aware of this natural pattern and try to give younger children more quality time.

The research also shows that the youngest child gets roughly the same amount of quality time whether the family is large or small. Price found that parents of large families devote more overall quality time to their children, so the youngest of four siblings ends up with as much quality time as the younger of two siblings.

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