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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