Should I Keep My Firstborn an Only Child?

New study confirms achievement advantage for firstborns and only children.

Posted Mar 19, 2015

For a period of time, firstborns are only children. Their education and achievement levels are noteworthy. In a new study, “Sibling Configurations, Educational Aspiration and Attainment,” Feifei Bu of Essex University found that “firstborn children (whether male or female) have higher aspirations and that these aspirations play a significant role in determining later levels of attainment.”

Some of history’s most iconic moments have happened thanks to only children. Twelve men have walked on the moon. All of them were firstborns or only children. The advantages of being an only child range from artistic success to politics and athletics. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Al Pacino, Matthew Perry, Sammy Davis Jr., Daniel Radcliffe, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rudy Giuliani grew up with no siblings.    

And what do accomplished women like Danielle Steel and Indira Gandhi have in common? They’re also only children, and they’re in outstanding company with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Lauren Bacall, Betty White, Christina Applegate, and Charlize Theron.

The Firstborn or Only-Child Edge

Although this phenomenon has long been observed, there was little conclusive data on why only children and firstborns seem to possess such an advantage. Bu’s new study is the latest among those attempting to unravel the firstborn edge, particularly with regard to academic success and educational aspirations. The study followed 1,503 sibling groups and 3,532 individuals.

Accounting for parents' education and professional status, Bu found that the probability of attending further education for firstborns is 16 percent higher than for their younger siblings, and firstborn children were 7 percent more likely to aspire to complete their higher education than younger siblings.

One possible explanation is that the financial strains of higher education are felt less by only children because their family is able to provide more monetary support. Firstborns, even if they don’t remain only children forever, get to enjoy some resource advantages early on—perks younger siblings will never have.

Siblings as Competitors for Parental Resources

The Dilution Theory is a viable explanation for the disparity between first-borns and younger siblings. Presenting to the American Sociological Association, Ohio State researchers explained it this way: “Social science research investigating the consequences of siblings has been dominated by resource-dilution arguments. The dilution perspective posits that parental resources are finite and that siblings end up reducing the amount of time, attention, and financial resources any one child can receive.

“Siblings detract from child development; the argument goes, by spreading parental attention more thinly across a broader group of children. From this perspective, siblings are primarily competitors rather than providers of resources. It follows that resource-dilution proponents are skeptical of the notion that siblings promote child development.”

Brothers & Sisters & Nobody  

In a Medical Daily article, “Brothers & Sisters & Nobody: The Science Behind Growing Up,” the writer concludes: “Understanding the fundamentals of what builds a child’s personality requires one to revisit the inexhaustible argument of nature versus nurture. Most twin studies have come to the conclusion that it is a combination of both, and in that case, siblings would only provide a smaller impression on overall upbringing. Everything, however, is circumstantial when it comes to how much of an effect a brother, sister, or lack thereof, has on an individual.”

For better or worse, firstborns temporarily or permanently have no sibling to potentially affect their development. They will get more parental time and a bigger share of the economic pie out of the gate. These firstborn and only-child assets cannot be offset by questionable early multi-sibling fraternization pluses. On balance, the firstborn or only child would seem to have selected the winning card.

Copyright @2015,2018 by Susan Newman

Related: How Siblings Teach Each Other…or Don’tWhen Your Child Asks for a Sibling: Reconciling Your and Your Child’s Concerns About Sibling StatusStanding Up to the Pressure to Have More Children


Bu, F. (2014). “Sibling Configuration, Educational Aspiration and Attainment.” Institute for Social and Economic Research, 2014-11.

Downey, D., & Bobbitt-Zeher, D. (2010). “Good for Nothing: Number of Siblings and Friendship Nominations Among Adolescents.” Presentation to the American Sociological Association.

McVeigh, Tracy. “Firstborn Children Really Do Excel, Reveals Groundbreaking Study.” (April 26, 2014).

Olsen, Samantha. “Brothers & Sisters & Nobody: The Science Behind Growing Up.” Medical Daily, January 14, 1015.

Photo Credit: vgm8383 via photopin (cc)

More Posts