Most people agree that the style of parenting employed by mothers and fathers can be influential in the kind of person a child becomes. But researchers from Brigham Young University were interested in the next level: Does the way a parent thinks about an individual child make a difference in the child’s future?
Their report, based on how parents express perceptions of their children, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology and was entitled “What Makes Siblings Different? The Development of Sibling Differences in Academic Achievement and Interests.”
The scientists studied 388 teenagers from 17 different school districts who were the firstborn child in the family or the second-born. They interviewed the teens’ parents as well. They were direct in their questioning by asking: Which one of your children is better in school? More often than not, the parents said their firstborn was better, even though on average the siblings were performing at the same level.
Researchers wondered why the firstborn was perceived as smarter even though he or she had not earned the distinction. Samantha Olson, writing for Medical Daily, quotes one of the study’s authors:
“Parents’ beliefs about their children, not just their actual parenting, may influence who their children become,” the study’s lead author Alexander Jensen, a professor at Brigham Young University, said in a press release. “It’s hard for parents to not notice or think about differences between their children. It’s only natural. But to help all children succeed, parents should focus on recognizing the strengths of each of their children and be careful about vocally making comparisons in front of them.”
When the siblings are adults, the one who was labeled the “smarter” one may begin to live out their perceived identity. Because the parents believed in that child, the pressure is shifted from the smarter child to their brother or sister.
“A mom or dad may think that the oldest sibling is smarter because at any given time they are doing more complicated subjects in school,” Jensen said. “The firstborn likely learned to read first, to write first, and that places the thought in the parent’s mind that they are more capable, but when the siblings are teenagers, it leads to the siblings becoming more different. Ultimately, the sibling who is seen as less smart will tend to do worse in comparison to their sibling.”
In truth, as the Deccan Herald reports, parents’ beliefs about sibling differences were not influenced by past grades and future grades were influenced by parents’ beliefs. To be exact, that belief caused a 0.21 difference in GPA among the participants in the study. This may seem a small number, but over time small effects have the possibility of changing the siblings into beings who are very different from one another.
There was one significant exception. When the firstborn was a boy and the second-born was a girl, parents believed the girl was more academically skilled. Interestingly, according to the report, in terms of grades that seemed to be true.