Economic Theory Explains Why First-Born Kids Are Way Less Cool

We’ve all heard the theory that first-borns tend to be more well-behaved and successful and general know-it-all overachievers, thanks to the pressures and expectations of their parents. I still have infuriated memories of my mom blamed ME for fights my sister clearly started because as the eldest I “should know better.”

Things I should save for therapy aside, PBS NewsHour explains a new economic study confirming what we’ve long suspected, and complained about: oldest kids do get it the worst. Best of all, we do get to blame our parents.

Researchers have used game theory to explain parents’ diminishing incentive to discipline their children. Basically, parents hate punishing their kids, so they just do it with the first and hope everyone else gets the point:

A game theory model would explain the incentive that parents have for wanting to clamp down on older children to send a signal to their younger children. Discipline, after all, is not something you can start with younger kids and retroactively apply to the older ones…And indeed, as more kids join the family, the impact of punishment diminishes, relative to the investment in meting it out.

Thus, from an economics cost-benefit perspective, parents would become more reluctant to punish as time goes by and the family swells, letting the young ones, relative to the first-borns, off the hook…Each additional sibling an eldest child is blessed (or cursed) with increases the likelihood they’ll see their parents’ stringent side (as measured by daily parental monitoring of homework completion). If there are no more kids, there’s less incentive to discipline the “first.”

That supports another family trait celebrated in cultural lore: the only child syndrome. The reasoning is that parents are less reluctant to punish only children because they don’t have to set the standard for a bigger brood; again, a lower payoff for a given investment — strict parenting of the first born.

This would explain why I had to wait until I was 12-years-old to shave my legs for the first time, and my sister got to do it when she was ten. And why my sister was cool and I was a virgin until I was 23. Thanks, economists!

Photo: Life Mental Health

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14 Comments / Post A Comment

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

ugh and if you are the oldest and a girl and your younger siblings are brothers you get the double whammy of extra strictness

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

@wrappedupinbooks but at least I can blame the patriarchy for the second part!!!!!!

Smallison (#155)

@wrappedupinbooks yes yes yes. Both of my younger brothers had a lot more freedom than me! I had to start working at 14, while they’ll both coasted for a few extra years.

Ugh, tell me about it!!!

OllyOlly (#669)

My parents may have tried harder to discipline my older brothers, but it certainly didn’t result in them being more well behaved…I obviously missed a lot of opportunities as #3 to run wild with my mom’s energies spent on my older bros.

My younger brother did get to watch rated R movies earlier than I did though. I will never forget mom!!!!

It is the generally held belief in my family that I am the coolest of the 4 children, and I’m the oldest. HOORAY I BEAT GAME THEORY

andnowlights (#2,902)

Well, I’m blowing this theory’s statistics to hell. My brother is 3.5 years younger than me and making 1.5 times I make… with his first job out of college, whereas I’ve been graduated for 5 years now. I was the rebellious one/terrible student… I’m paying for it now. Mostly I’m just mad at myself.

Meaghano (#529)

@andnowlights Listen, we have to wait until you both die until we can truly take stock of your lives and decide which one was more successful. There is still time!

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Meaghano Aw, thanks! I have to keep reminding myself that I’m only 27, not 67. Things will be much easier once my husband has graduated and it’s my turn to go back to school!

planforamiracle (#4,034)

My experience corroborates this. I’m in a “cooler” job than my little bro (arts admin as opposed to engineering) but he is way better in the go-with-the-flow, don’t-give-a-fuck department, whereas I’m pretty anxious/high-strung. I think he wins.

helpmeimahustla (#5,166)

I know that this comment is only tangentially related to this post, but parents should not regulate their children’s bodies in this way (disallowing a child to shave when s/he wants to shave). Yikes.

gyip (#4,192)

@helpmeimahustla Parents kind of always get to regulate their children’s bodies. They pick the haircuts, clothes, and allow/disallow consumptions of foods and liquids.

Not that I disagree with you — I think children should have more choice (and a teachable moment for responsibility and bodily autonomy) about their bodies, especially when it comes to things like hair, which grows back.

On the shaving point, I think it’s a little different because shaving behaviour is a bit sexualized. I’d make it on the same level as make-up for girls and women, and many people certainly think that’s OK to control for their children.

I know many women see shaving as more a hygiene or grooming thing, but it is sexualized. North American society prefers women to be smooth, and hairiness is seen as unfeminine. I didn’t start shaving my legs because I liked it or preferred it … I did it because of pressure to conform to other girls in school. I got a pretty gross look of disgust once and I never went back. Shame is really powerful.

If I were a parent and I felt my daughter wanted to shave her legs just to be like older girls, I’d probably talk to her about it.

gyip (#4,192)

No, it’s weirdly reversed for me. My brothers endured the burden of their good-grades elder sister, and were treated more harshly than I ever was. I always felt bad for that.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

re: only child syndrome – this may apply to me. I think I was punished once ever, and my reaction was so severely destructive that I ended up disciplining them never to punish me again? I was 3…

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