by Nancy Weinstein


While there is no genetic difference in cognitive abilities or personality by birth order, parents always ask me about it in a half whisper. No parent ever wants to admit that they compare their children, particularly when it comes to “smarts.” However, as explained by author Meri Wallace, there are personality traits evident in studies of children and birth order that could lead to higher academic achievement among our first-borns.

The traits? Perfectionism, responsibility, workaholic.

The explanation? Parents tend to dote more on their first born, closely monitor their achievement at every milestone, and often times even invest more financially. As a result, first-borns tend to have more one-on-one instruction as well as higher self-esteem and confidence, all of which can be closely linked to higher academic achievement.

However, we know parents who are extra cautious to treat their children equally. They mark down the age of every milestone and say it isn’t an age effect. They believe the birth order stereotype still persists in their families. Why?

Science might just have the answer, but it’s not in the most oft looked at fields of sociology or genetics. Rather, it’s neuroscience. The science of how we learn might explain why our first-borns seem to be learning and retaining more. And the good news is, we can fix it.

Spaced Repetition. Learn, practice, wait, repeat is crucial to long-term retention. Older siblings learn something new. When their younger siblings are taught the same information, the older siblings often are the beneficiaries of repeat exposure. This repeat exposure secures the knowledge in long-term memory in ways that one-time exposure does not.

Peer Teaching. We learn best when we teach others. Older siblings are constantly peer teaching at home. Whether it is helping with homework or explaining what an adult just said. Younger siblings get far fewer opportunities to reap the benefits of peer teaching: critical thinking, expressive language, and explaining specific knowledge.

Reading Aloud. Eldest children often are read to as long as their younger siblings. Many families stop reading aloud once all children are independent readers. Reading aloud and discussing what you read is unquestionably one of the best ways to improve verbal reasoning skills, the skill that best predicts academic success. Oldest children often get a few extra years of this valuable experience during their most formative years.

Now that you understand why an older child might seem stronger academically, here’s what you can do to be sure younger siblings reap the same benefits:

Give younger children more opportunities to review what they’ve learned. Don’t expect them to remember everything they’ve seen once — create opportunities to review core skills and knowledge over time.

Be deliberate in asking your younger child to explain, perhaps asking your older one to wait and give others a turn.

Keep reading to your children for as long as they will let you. Cherish that time.

Of course, if you still aren’t sure about your children’s learning strengths and needs, find out with a Mindprint. One certainty is that all children have different learning strengths and needs, the cognitive skills that aren’t measured on school achievement tests but that absolutely impact academic performance. That doesn’t mean that all children can’t achieve academic success, but they might need different supports to get there. You’ll at least want to sign-up for our free Toolbox of strategies and activities to support each child.

And the most recent studies about birth order do say that any effects seem to disappear by adulthood, so maybe it’s just a matter of time. Read more articles about siblings, genetics, and family influence.

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