When I first read about the study by a team led by Dr. Petter Kristensen of the National Institute of Occupational Health in Oslo, Norway, I was amused. Okay, I even smiled hugely. I am a firstborn, after all.
In a nutshell, the study says that social ranking in the family, rather than birth order, affects the level of intelligence. This is supposedly bolstered by a finding that in families where the firstborn died, the second eldest child exhibited the same higher level of I.Q. as though he was the firstborn.
The difference in I.Q. level between the firstborn and the younger siblings is a mere 3.2 on the average. Note though that the subjects in the study were 18- to 19-year-old Norwegian males who enlisted for military service. Yet, the lead author was confident enough to declare that the results would probably apply to females as well.
American pediatrician Clark Bartram calls the study “silly” and, though “mildly interesting”, is nevertheless “useless”. Bartram wrote in his Web log:
“Obviously I think that studies like this are uneccessary and silly, and I wonder who funds them. Unfortunately, and I am hardly a mollycoddler, I think that there is a potential harm inherent in widespread mass media reports implying that second, third, and all subsequent children will be increasingly more stupider (I’m a second child). It is well known that something as simple as a false positive newborn screen result can adversely affect parents’ perceptions of their child’s health, parental stress, and the parent-child relationship.
“In the world of pediatrics, this entity is known as Sick Child Syndrome and it has had disasterous results for families…”
I can’t say I disgree with Dr. Bartram. The study itself specifies its parameters. Yet, reports in the international media focus on the sensational results.
The media hype aside, I have problems with the obvious quantitative thrust of the study vis a vis the qualitative aspect of intelligence. Second, if we perceive such a narrow study as authoritative, with or without the media hype, there’s the danger of stereotyping. Resulting prejudice can go either way. Parents may be more accepting of the “limitations” of younger children and subconsciously neglect to encourage them to do better since, scientifically, they are doomed to be second-raters. On the other hand, parents may push firstborns harder when they fail to live up to the standards laid down in the study.
Two New York Times articles on the I.Q. study mention other related studies where the findings include: 1) Firstborns are more disciplined, responsible and high-achieving while 2) Younger siblings are more risk-takers and adventurous.
More stereotyping. In addition to prejudice, there’s the danger of forming arbitrary expectations.
What we ought to remember is that a study, no matter how scientific it may claim to be, will always be limited to a specific number of subjects. And, just like social surveys, the proponents often begin with preconceived theories that they seek to prove. Just how objective can these studies be? Findings based on a couple of hundred thousand subjects cannot be conclusive as to the rest of the billions of people inhabiting the earth. To claim otherwise would be preposterous.
Frankly, as an individual and as a parent, I am more concerned about respecting the uniqueness of every person and never mind whether his I.Q. is higher than his siblings’, or whether he fits the pattern or not. In fact, I don’t like making comparisons to the tune of who is better-looking, who is smarter, who is more of a “good child”. You might be surprised at just how many of my friends and relatives have insisted, at one time or another, and often in the course of casual conversation, that I make such comparisons between my daughters since they obviously do the same with their own children. And I think that the propensity towards making comparisons is even more marked when siblings are of the same gender.
I don’t look at my kids and pass judgment on who is more or who is less whether in a general sense or relative to specific areas. Yet, I do acknowledge that they have different character and intellectual strengths. I cannot overrate the importance of this acknowledgment since it is necessary in order to identify the areas where they can still improve.
For instance, my firstborn, Sam, is highly analytical with words. She can even out-argue adults. She writes kick-ass essays. But she won’t find it as easy to apply her analytical prowess with mathematical problems.
On the other hand, my younger daughter, Alex, is strong in Math. Show her numbers and equations and she’ll breeze through them. But transform a mathematical problem into words and she won’t find it as much fun. She also spends a lot more time in front of the television.
Yet, despite the marked differences, there are similarities too in terms of academic patterns. They both have difficulty reading long essays in Filipino, a situation that we’re still trying to remedy.
The Norwegian study underrates the significance of biological factors in relation to the I.Q. of the child. I’m no scientist but, in the case of my own children, I can safely claim expertise. The similarities would be easier to explain. I taught them their A-B-C; their father taught them their 1-2-3. They read the same picture dictionaries, they watched same Disney movies, they shared their coloring books, crayons, puzzles and building blocks. They went to the same schools and had practically the same teachers. And since they grew up in the same house, they ate the same food and breathed the same air.
But what would account for the differences? It’s tempting to say, “genes”. You know, something in line with me being the “words” parent and my husband being the “numbers” parent (he’s an engineer). You know, nature.
But beyond nature, neither can I disregard the difference in the prenatal stimulation that they were exposed to. When I was pregnant with Sam, I had an active law practice and most of my days were spent reading, writing and arguing. My money activities were limited to shopping. Shopping for food, maternity clothes, baby clothes, baby accessories, books, audio CDs… When the money ran out, I stopped. Simple math.
When I was pregnant with Alex, and I was a full-time mother by then, there wasn’t as much time left for reading since most of my waking hours were spent taking care of Sam, doing chores and balancing the budget. In short, I did more additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions – fractions and decimals included, naturally. I actually kept a ledger. What rest time I could manage were spent watching the television.
Who can say with absolute certainty that none of these affected my daugters’ I.Q.?
What then did I learn from the Norwegian study? Five things: 1) Scientific studies are not always scientific nor useful. 2) Scientific studies are no substitute for one’s ability to observe and analyze. 3) Self-worth cannot be measured by I.Q. nor by comparing ourselves with others, not even with our siblings. 4) If we ever find a need to understand the source of our unique character and intellectual strengths and weaknesses, we must never discount the significance of every single experience, even those we might only remember at a subconscious level. And, finally, that 5) genes account for something.
References and interesting reads: