Between the ages 4 and 13, first-born children get about 3,000 more hours of quality time with their parents between than does the next sibling during the same age range.
The study provides a possible explanation for why older children tend to get more education, make more money and score higher on IQ tests.
Quality time, in quantity
“We’ve known for a long time that eldest children have better outcomes, and these findings on quality time provide one explanation why,” says Brigham Young University economics professor Joseph Price, who used data from the American Time Use Survey, a federal government study involving 21,000 people.
Birth order’s role in child outcomes began drawing more attention in recent years after UCLA economist Sandra Black and two colleagues found that older siblings get more education and make more money than their younger brothers and sisters.
Follow-up research connected birth order to IQ, but none of the studies answered why birth order had such an impact.
The research appeared in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Human Resources. “Joe’s work has taken a big first step in helping us understand what is driving these birth order differences,” says Black, a co-editor of the journal. “It’s among the first to use a large dataset to document systematic differences in parental investments by birth order.”
A surprise to many parents
Price says his findings on birth order and quality time surprise most parents who try to split their attention evenly across all their children.
This study shows parents do provide equal time on any particular day, but not when looking at each child’s total time with parents between their fourth and fourteenth birthdays. That’s because the amount of time parents spend with children on a daily basis declines as families get older. First-born children get more quality time simply because they pass through childhood when there is more overall family time to be shared.
“Joe Price convincingly demonstrates that parents spend more time with their oldest child — probably largely without realizing it or intending to treat their children unequally, as parents tend to be committed to a norm of ‘equal treatment’ for all children,” says Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies time use.
Time of lesser quality
Not only do parents spend less total time with children as the family ages, but more of that time is spent on activities not considered to be “quality” time, such as watching TV. Younger children actually watch more TV programming with their parents between the ages 4 and 13 than first-born children do when they pass through the same age range, the study showed.
“If your goal as a parent is to equalize outcomes across your children, you should be aware of this natural pattern and try to give younger children more quality time,” says Price.
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.