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The plight of the older sibling

Now, a new study has confirmed what first-borns like Joshua have always suspected: The oldest kid in the family really does bear the brunt of parental strictness, while the younger brothers and sisters generally coast on through.

“The folklore is that parents punish the older child more than the younger ones,” says Lingxin Hao, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and an author of the study, published in the latest issue of the Economic Journal. “But it isn’t just folklore — this is a national pattern.”

First-borns who dropped out of school were 20 percent less likely to be getting most of their annual income from their parents than younger siblings in the same situation, Hao and her team found after reviewing annual surveys, involving more than 7,000 kids each year, conducted from 1979 to 1994 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition, the researchers found, first-born daughters who got pregnant as teenagers were 30 percent less likely to be getting most of their money from their parents than younger female siblings.

“Parents have an incentive to play tough with their kids, especially the older ones, to try to establish this signal to the other children that they’re not a pushover,” says Joseph Hotz, an economics professor at Duke University and a co-author of the study.

It’s all for the sake of setting an example, a refrain first-borns know all too well. By punishing the oldest kid more severely, Hotz says, parents are hoping to essentially scare the younger brothers and sisters straight, keeping them from making a similar mistake.

Parenting a perfectionist

“We did become stricter with Joshua after Justin was born,” says Ken Jones, father to the Jones boys — Joshua is 13, and Justin is 11. “I think I was a bit rougher on Joshua. He had to do things more perfectly.”

As the Jones family, who lives in Corona, Calif., has found, and the new research confirms, being a little tougher on the oldest kid in the family often turns out a kid like Joshua — the stereotypical rule-abiding, responsible first-born.

The study showed that older siblings were much less likely to drop out of school or, in the case of girls, get pregnant, than the youngest in the family, perhaps because they’ve had a lifetime of being held to higher standards.

That stricter parenting style often shapes the first-born kid into a play-by-the rules perfectionist, so parents tend to rely more on their oldest child than the younger kids, says Kevin Leman, a Tucson, Ariz., psychologist and author of “The Birth Order Book.”

“When a job needs to get done, it’s the habit of the parent to call on the first-born, because they’re the most reliable and conscientious,” Leman says. But it's no accident that the oldest has become a responsible wonder child; it's the parenting strategy that made them that way.

That’s how Ed Newman, a first-born, describes himself as a kid. As a teenager in New Jersey in the ’60s, he would never consider breaking his 11 p.m. curfew. He even remembers ignoring a group of buddies who repeatedly rapped on his window one night, trying to get him to come out. “It just seemed … wrong,” says Newman, now 55 and living in Duluth, Minn.

Flash forward 30-odd years later, and Newman’s youngest brother, eight years his junior, hits him with this piece of information: Baby brother Robert didn’t even have a curfew growing up.

“I knew my parents had loosened up some, but I didn’t know they had loosened up completely!” says Newman.

This is the same brother, Newman adds, who once singed off his eyelashes and eyebrows after making an explosive that blew up in his face.

Younger siblings, the researchers found, really are more likely to take more risks than the oldest kid in the family. In the data Hao and her team reviewed, younger siblings were especially more likely to drop out of school — and get financial support from their parents.

When it comes to parenting the first-born, there’s always a set of younger eyes watching the parents’ every move. But with the youngest, nobody younger is watching the consequences play out, making it harder for parents to stick to all that “tough love” talk. For the youngest kids who get into trouble, “parents are more likely to go in and bail them out,” says Hotz.

'Exhaustion takes over'

By the time the second and third kids come around, many parents lighten up, and realize that they probably overreacted a little with setting rules for their first kid, Leman says. “The first-born’s a guinea pig; we practice on ‘em,” he says. “Once the other kids come in, we lighten up. Or exhaustion takes over.”

With her oldest daughter, Lisa Russell set down very specific rules about sweets and TV watching, and kept her little girl, Emily, to a strict schedule. Dinner was always at 6, bedtime always at 8.

“When Emily was little, she was just always my perfect little robot who did everything I wanted her to do,” Russell says. “I thought, God, I must be really good at this.”

Fourteen years and four more kids later, dinner happens when it happens, and bedtime “isn’t so much of a time, it’s more like when a meltdown occurs,” says Russell, who lives in Yakima, Wash. Her five girls range in age from 5 months to 14 years.

“I don’t make an issue of things anymore,” Russell says. “You learn to choose your battles, and you learn what matters and what doesn't matter.”