BYU Research Shows Quality Time Gives Firstborns a Boost

Contributed By By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 6 February 2014

Brigham Young University professor Joseph Price poses with his children, from left, Joseph, 11, Benjaman, 10, and Kaylana, 8.  Photo by Jaren Wilke, BYU.

Article Highlights

  • Firstborn children get about 3,000 more hours of quality time with their parents between ages 4 and 13 than the next sibling when he or she passes through the same age range.
  • The amount of time parents spend with their children decreases as families get older.
  • Parents wanting similar outcomes for their children should try to give their younger children more quality time.

“Time is a gift, a treasure not to be put aside for the future but to be used wisely in the present.” —President Thomas S. Monson

What do Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, and Rush Limbaugh have in common with over half of the U.S. presidents? CBSNews.com reports they are all the firstborn or an only child.

Multiple studies have been done on the effects of birth order on children. Firstborn children tend to be natural leaders, quite reliable, and sometimes perfectionists with a desire for praise. Research at BYU indicates that firstborn children might possess these traits because of the amount of time they receive from their parents.

The study shows that firstborn children get about 3,000 more hours of quality time with their parents between ages 4 and 13 than the next sibling gets when he or she passes through the same age range. The study provides a possible explanation for why older children tend to get more education, make more money, and score higher on IQ tests.

BYU economics professor Joseph Price, who received his PhD from Cornell University, conducted the analysis, which appears in the Journal of Human Resources. He said, “We’ve known for a long time that eldest children have better outcomes, and these findings on quality time provide one explanation why.” Data for the study was taken from the American Time Use Survey, a federal government study involving 21,000 people.

Birth order’s role in child outcomes began drawing more attention in recent years after UCLA economist Sandra Black and two colleagues found that older siblings get more education and make more money than their younger brothers and sisters. Follow-up research connected birth order to IQ, but none of the studies answered why birth order creates such an impact.

“Joe’s work has taken a big first step in helping us understand what is driving these birth order differences,” said Ms. Black, a coeditor of the Journal of Human Resources. “It’s among the first to use a large dataset to document systematic differences in parental investments by birth order.”

Dr. Price said his findings on birth order and quality time surprise most parents who try to split their attention evenly across all their children. This study shows parents do provide equal time on any particular day, but not when looking at each child’s total time with parents between their 4th and 14th birthdays. That’s because the amount of time parents spend with children on a daily basis declines as families get older. Firstborn children get more quality time simply because they pass through childhood when there is more overall family time to be shared.

“Joe Price convincingly demonstrates that parents spend more time with their oldest child—probably largely without realizing it or intending to treat their children unequally, as parents tend to be committed to a norm of ‘equal treatment’ for all children,” wrote Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland before her death last November 4.

Not only do parents spend less total time with children as the family ages, but more of that time is spent on activities, such as watching television, not considered to be “quality” time. Younger children actually watch more TV programming with their parents between the ages of 4 and 13 than firstborn children do when they pass through the same age range, the study showed.

The research also shows that the youngest child gets roughly the same amount of quality time whether the family is large or small. Price found that parents of large families devote more overall quality time to their children, so the youngest of four siblings ends up with as much quality time as the younger of two siblings.

“If your goal as a parent is to equalize outcomes across your children, you should be aware of this natural pattern and try to give younger children more quality time,” said Dr. Price.

President Thomas S. Monson said: “Time passes quickly. Many parents say that it seems like yesterday that their children were born. Now those children are grown, perhaps with children of their own. ‘Where did the years go?’ they ask. We cannot call back time that is past, we cannot stop time that now is, and we cannot experience the future in our present state. Time is a gift, a treasure not to be put aside for the future but to be used wisely in the present” (“Dedication Day,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 66).