The Oldest Child Is Smarter...So Says the Research

For nearly a century, child development experts have pondered just how much parents matter in how their kids turn out. This week, fresh new research hit the AP wires and the “nature vs. nurture” debate may finally be put to rest. The findings are profound: Firstborn sons have higher IQs than their younger brothers because of how they are raised. Wow! It seems they finally figured out that parents do make a difference after all!! This morning I talked about the study on Today, and here are some of the most interesting results, and how you can use them with your own children.

(Check out the video from the Today show!)

The study came from Norway lead by a psychologist, Petter Kristensen. Over the past decade Kristensen and a group of researchers meticulously analyzed IQ scores of 250,000 men. All the men took the IQ test when they were 18 or 19 years old and were required to do it as draftees entering the Norwegian army. The results found that the oldest child is smarter than the next oldest sibling by an average of 2.3 points, who in turn beat the third-born brother by 1.1 points. If the eldest child dies, the second sibling becomes the smartest one. That means it’s not just the birth order that’s boosting those IQ points, but the dynamics in the family and how the first born kid is treated. By the way, though no women were involved in the study, the researchers contend that the same results would happen for women.

While 2.3 points may seem measly, in today’s test-crazed society they can be just enough to give a child an academic edge. Those two points could be the difference between earning the grade of a B+ or an A; going to a state school or a university; or entry into a special educational program. Many schools these days require IQ tests and a score of 132 in order for a child to get into their gifted programs. A two-point lower score could mean the cut-off to entry.

So the real question is: How are we parenting our eldest children differently that’s giving them those added IQ points? That’s the best part. The parenting strategies are simple and doable. Here are four take-away tips from this important Norwegian study that you can use with your children.

1. Talk to your child. (And talk and talk and talk). One of the strongest correlations to IQ is a strong verbal ability. The best way to nurture your child’s verbal skills is by just plain talking and talking and talking to them. Researchers say we do that far more with the first child.

2. Focus on your child. Researchers contend that eldest children generally have higher self-esteem. They have stronger confidence and some of that is because they spend more uninterrupted time with us. There isn’t another sibling to compete with.

3. Treat your child as capable. We give our elder kids more responsibilities, and we just plain expect more of them at a younger age. How you are treated does become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost all American presidents and the first astronauts were the first born. First born kids are more likely to be leaders.

4. Let your child tutor his younger sibling. The eldest child has another benefit: he has a younger sibling to help. (“Will you show your sister how to turn on the computer?” “Can you help your brother with his reading?”) Teaching someone a skill not only helps the tutored but also helps the tutor. In fact, in many cases, the oldest child gains the most (IQ-wise anyway) from teaching his younger brother.

The bottom line in all this is that parents are their children’s best IQ boosters. So put down those flash cards and unplug those brainy baby tapes. You do make a difference in how your child turns out.

Now if we could just figure out a way to redefine success so we don’t get so crazed thinking it’s all about IQ. In the real world, research shows that IQ doesn’t make much of a difference in achieving success. What does matter: perseverance, confidence and goal-setting.

But what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on birth order and your kids!


Michele's latest book is 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know: Getting Back to Basics and Raising Happy Kids.

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