Is Your Child Athletic or Academic? Why It May Depend on Birth Order

Alex Flanagan
In Learn
By Alex Flanagan | April 26, 2016

(By Guest Contributor Michael McArdle)

Where your child falls in the family might actually be one of the things that determine whether they are an athlete or an academic. That’s right birth order, can actually factor into the success of young athletes.

If you are the eldest child and a female, you are statistically more likely to be the most ambitious in terms of education according to a study by Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex. Following first-born females are first-born males. If you are a younger sibling, you’re more likely to be better at sports.

The research suggests first-borns score higher on IQ tests and get further in business than their younger siblings. The closer in age the children are, the more these tendencies form. (Unless a gap of four years exists between siblings, then there is little difference.)

The reason for this? Parents spend far more “alone” time with first-borns (obviously, since they are the only child). This is coupled with the fact that parents create a higher intellectual environment through the language they use with a first-born. As more children enter the family, the intellectual level begins to go down. Why? Because there is now a “baby” and this new arrival will receive far less attention than the first born and there is a significant decline in “adult-type” language and more “baby talk.”

Think about it: If one is constantly referred to as “the baby” growing up, the level of maturation and development slows significantly. Older children treat their youngest siblings as “babies” so much so that the younger ones are often prevented from developing their own ideas and activities. An additional component comes into play at this point. The first-born becomes a “teacher” and this produces deeper neurological connections within the brain – hence the tendency to outperform academically.

There is an exception though to the “first-born” impact: Sports. Research shows that younger siblings often outperform older siblings in the world of sports. When younger athletes are continually competing with older, more accomplished athletes, it produces better outcomes. If a child is able to persevere, competing against older athletes produces an effort whereby the younger learner is continually reaching beyond their existing ability. There are three sports where this is statistically provable: Baseball, Basketball, and Volleyball. (Football is an exception because size carries a greater importance than the other sports.)

It makes sense actually. If one lacks the physical attributes that the older athletes possess, that can be offset by stronger fundamentals in those three sports. If your entire sports foundation is built upon “playing up” against competition, it makes sense that younger siblings can rise to a higher level. Children who appear to be “natural” athletes, need to realize that less talented athletes may pass them by because of the continued need for solid fundamentals development to offset the size discrepancy.

There is a caution here: continually “playing up” can lead to burnout at a much higher rate than older athletes experience. Younger athletes tend to get frustrated more easily and because of their inherent immaturity, they cannot handle failure as well as the older siblings.

It is difficult to teach the nuanced world of competition to children. They think if they score more points or win more medals than someone else, they are “better” than that person. They fail to take into account the competition. Winning a first place medal against a weak field is not as impressive as winning a second place medal against a superior filed of athletes. But try telling that to a 10-year-old.

If a younger child begins to outperform an older child, congratulate the older child on the “expert” coaching he/she provided. It takes a talented athlete to create a more talented athlete!

Michael McArdle is a Learning Research Specialist and the former Executive Director of the non-profit Learning Patterns Corporation. He writes, lectures, and conducts workshops on a variety of subjects dealing with the development of the human mind.


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