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Effect of Birth Order on the Differential Parental Treatment of Children

  • University Putra Malaysia

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This study investigated the effect of birth order on the differential parental treatment of children. Respondents of the study include 122 adolescents (33 males and 89 females) from the Klang Valley, Malaysia aged 13-17years (M=16years, SD = 1.05). The Sibling Inventory of Differential Experience (SIDE) was used to measure differential parental treatment. Findings of the study revealed significant differential parental control between first and last born children. Future studies may examine the number of siblings in a family as a factor in differential parental treatment.
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Asian Social Science; Vol. 10, No. 14; 2014
ISSN 1911-2017 E-ISSN 1911-2025
Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education
Effect of Birth Order on the Differential Parental Treatment of
Wen Lynn Ng
, Sakineh Mofrad
& Ikechukwu Uba
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science and Technology, Sunway University, Malaysia
Department of Human Development & Family Studies, Faculty of Human Ecology, University Putra Malaysia
Correspondence: Sakineh Mofrad, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science and Technology, Sunway
University, No. 5, Jalan Universiti 46150 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia. Tel: 60-37-491-8622. E-mail:
Received: April 1, 2014 Accepted: May 8, 2014 Online Published: June 24, 2014
doi:10.5539/ass.v10n14p132 URL:
This study investigated the effect of birth order on the differential parental treatment of children. Respondents of
the study include 122 adolescents (33 males and 89 females) from the Klang Valley, Malaysia aged 13-17years
(M=16years, SD = 1.05). The Sibling Inventory of Differential Experience (SIDE) was used to measure
differential parental treatment. Findings of the study revealed significant differential parental control between
first and last born children. Future studies may examine the number of siblings in a family as a factor in
differential parental treatment.
Keywords: parental treatment, adolescents, birth order
1. Introduction
1.1 Rational for the Study
Psychologists have often wondered how a sociable humorist and a solitary, thoughtful intellectual can be so
dissimilar and yet share the same genetic factor. The secret some scholars argue lies within the context of birth
order. Birth order indicates the position of a child in a family relative to their siblings. In the contention of
Sulloway (1996), last born children are often rebels whose views center on changing the world, while first born
children simply stick to the “status quo”. In consonance with the above, MacDonald (1971) argued that last born
children were likely to have external-locus of control, meaning they believe that external forces control their
behaviour, while first born children he argued have internal-locus of control, which implies they believe that they
themselves, and not the external ecosystem, control their behaviour.
Although physical trait may bear some resemblance among siblings due to genetic similarity, however
personality trait and the developmental pace of siblings vary due to the non-shared environmental factor in the
family (Daniels & Plomin, 1985). In view of the above, a considerable number of researchers have reported
differences in parental treatment based on birth order between first born and later born children (Daniels, Dunn,
Furstenberg, & Plomin, 1985). The importance of birth order in personality development was first proposed by
Alfred Adler (1956). The scholar contended that first born children differ from last born children. Adlers theory
was later supported by Sulloway’s (1996). In the contention of both scholars, parents normally treat their
children differently based on their birth order. Although, individual differences such as birth order, gender, and
temperament may cause differential parental treatment, parents adjust to their children according to their needs
and signals (Kothari, 2011).
The ordinal position of children reinforces, and fosters some of the behavioral differences among siblings
(Nyman 1995). It is generally believed for example, that firstborns tend to be more intellectually oriented than
their younger siblings, are more conscientious in their work habits and studies and attain higher levels of
professional status in life (Herrera, Zajonc, Wieczorkowska, & Cichomski 2003). Essentially, dominance
hierarchies are based on age in most families. Firstborns can easily intimidate their younger brothers and sisters
both physically and verbally and as a result usually exert dominance over them. Several aspects of personality
and behavior, expressed within the family, reflect these differences in dominance (Howe & Recchia, 2006; Nash,
2009). In line with the above, research has suggested that the birth order of children influences the treatment they Asian Social Science Vol. 10, No. 14; 2014
receive from their parents, with the youngest child being favoured by parents (Rohde et al., 2003).
Nevertheless as compared with later born children, first born, are usually expected to be adult models and to
conform to adults’ expectations and pressure (Baskett, 1985). Hence, parents have more expectations towards the
first born as compared to their last born. Therefore, first born children may feel controlled by parents. Parental
control weakens from first born to last born, while the last born continues to enjoy some advantage. Parents tend
to discipline first born children more than other siblings in the family in most societies. In this regard, the theory
of differential discipline contend that last born children face more lenient disciplinary environment as compared
to first born children (Hotz & Pantano, 2010).
Studies have also found mothers more interactive and responsive towards their first born child as compared to
the last born (Collins, 2006), this could be because new parents may be overly anxious about the first child and
as the second child arrives, attention is divided among the siblings. This is supported by parental investment
theory (Trivers, 1972) and modern dilution theory (Harkonen, 2012). Modern dilution theory argues that when
parents are faced with the task of raising children born at different times, they usually decrease the resources and
inputs attainable for other offspring still under parental care (Behrman & Taubman, 1986). In contrast, Hertwig,
Davis and Sulloway (2002) contended that parents try to split their resources equally among all their children.
The notion of egalitarian treatment has remained a challenged and inconclusive phenomenon particularly
whether parents treat the younger or older children differently. Again siblings perception of unequal treatment
may be the consequence of their understanding of the phenomenon (Hertwig et al., 2002). In view of the above
relations, the current research by focusing on parents treatment towards their children, aims to discover
Malaysian parenting style based on birth order.
2. Method
2.1 Participants
The respondents consisted of 122 high school students from the Klang Valley in Malaysia. The participants were
13 to 17 years with a mean age of 16 years (SD = 1.05), these include 33 males (27%) and 89 females (73%). As
depicted in Table 1, among the 122 participants 60 (49.2%) were first born and 65 (50.8%) were last born. The
racial composition was 17 Malays (13.9%), 66 Chinese (54.1%), 37 Indians (30.3%), and 2 Punjabi (1.6%). All
the respondents were from intact families, meaning that they all lived with their biological parents.
Table 1. Demographics characteristics of participants (N = 122)
Characteristics N %
Age (13-17) 122 100
Birth order
First born
Last born
Parents Marital Status
Intact Family
2.2 Procedure
This is a cross sectional study, with 122 students recruited randomly from high schools. The initial instrument
administered by the researcher was 137; of this number 15 were rendered void. The inclusion criteria suggest
that adolescents must either be first born or last born in the family and their parents must still be married. To
participate in the study, students were urged to provide their consent. Permission for the study was granted
through the respondent’s parents and the principals of participating schools. Asian Social Science Vol. 10, No. 14; 2014
2.3 Measures
Sibling Inventory of Differential Experience (SIDE; Daniels & Plomin, 1985) was used to measure non shared
family environmental influences by asking children to compare their environment to that of their siblings. The
current version of SIDE was designed for adolescents in junior and senior high school (i.e. 12 to 18 years). The
9-item scale was rated on a five point Likert scale based on two dimensions of affection and control toward the
first versus the last born child (1 = much more toward my sibling to 5 = much more toward me). The five items
which measures parental affection consisted of parental pride, interest, favoritism, enjoyment and sensitivity
whereas another four item measuring parental control consists of parental strictness, punishment, blame, and
The reliabilities for younger siblings perceiving differential parental treatment from their parents were α = .74
and .64 as for older siblings α = .71 and .64. The internal consistency recorded a cronbach alpha coefficient of α
= .79 and .84 for control and affection among children (Kowal, Krull, & Kramer, 2006). The total score ranged
from 1 to 5. Higher scores indicated higher affection or control from either parent, while lower scores indicated
otherwise. Mid score however, indicated that siblings were treated equally. Students and parent were also given
demographic forms to fill, these included details such as their age, gender and so on.
3. Results
An independent sample t-test was conducted to compare differential parental treatment for first and last born
children. Results showed no significant difference in maternal affection [t (120) = 1.21, p = .228] and paternal [t
(120) = -.78, p = .439] affection scores between first (M = 3.04, SD = .62; M = 2.96, SD = .43) and last born (M
= 2.92, SD = .47; M = 3.02, SD = .36). The results indicated no difference in parental affection between first and
last born. Results also shows no significant difference in differential maternal control scores between first (M =
3.29, SD = .63) and last born (M = 3.15, SD = .44); [t (120) = 1.41, p = .161]. However, a significant difference
was found between first (M = 3.28, SD = .58) and last born (M = 3.01, SD = .39) in differential paternal control
[t (120) = 3.03, p < .01] (see Table 2). The result suggested that fathers control first born more than last born
Table 2. Comparison of parental differential treatment scores between first born and last born
First Born Last Born
Cohen’s d M SD M SD t p
Maternal Affection 3.04 .62 2.92 .47 1.21 .228 .22
Maternal Control 3.29 .63 3.15 .44 1.41 .161 .26
Paternal Affection 2.96 .43 3.02 .36 -.78 .439 -.15
Paternal Control 3.28 .58 3.01 .39 3.03 .003 .55
4. Discussion
The study examined the differences in parental differential treatment (PDT) between first born and last born
children. Results demonstrated no significant difference in parental affection and maternal scores between first
and last born. However, there was a significant difference [t (120) = 3.03, p < .01] between first and last born in
differential paternal control scores. The results of the study further found no significant difference between first
and last born children in differential parental treatment scores with parents’ being more affectionate towards the
last born and controlling for the first born. Although the study did not find any significant difference between
first and last born scores in parental treatment, the finding illustrated how parents offer and give their best to
their last born as they need more help than the rest. The finding of the present study is consistent with previous
studies (Hotz & Pantano, 2010; Poonam & Punia, 2012; Rohde et al., 2003). The finding is also in consonance
with the Jenkins, Rasbash, and O’Connor’s (2003) study that discovered no association between differential
parenting and birth order.
There was a significant difference in paternal control between first and last born children. It is appear that the
feeling of being controlled by father is higher among firstborns. One reason could be that fathers may have the
responsibility and authority to make decisions which coincide with the developmental level of the child (Poonam
& Punia, 2012). Existing evidence revealed that paternal behaviour plays a crucial role in the development of
first born children which could be the reason behind paternal control towards first born. Fathers have a higher
expectation of their first born child because they are expected to model paternal behaviour in their interaction Asian Social Science Vol. 10, No. 14; 2014
with their siblings (Baskett, 1984). It seems that the firstborn children frequently play the role of parent surrogate
to their younger siblings.
In Asian culture, paternal control is associated with warmth and affection whereas maternal control is associated
with aggression or hostility (Kim, 2008). Given the role of fathers in Asian cultures as decision makers, leaders
and the firm parent (Kim & Choi, 1994), paternal control becomes necessary. Besides that, fathers more than
mothers perceive their expression of behavioural control as appropriate for adolescents (Kim, 2008) and
encourage the development of self-control in the child. On the other hand, studies have also found first born
children more attuned to differences in parenting and treatment compared to later born children (Crouter, Head,
McHale, & Jenkins-Tucker, 2004; Shebloski, Conger, & Widaman, 2005). However, such speculations need to
be further explored by future studies by examining the cultural background of participants as a factor that
influences differential parental treatment.
As the majority of published papers, the current study is not without limitation. Most participants recruited were
females; this may have affected the results of the study, given that a past study also found girls particularly
vulnerable to adverse treatments such as behavioural control and discipline from fathers (Shanahan, McHale,
Crouter, & Osgood, 2008). Earlier studies also proposed that females are more controlled and supervised
compared to boys (Begue & Roche, 2005). One of the strengths of this study was that adolescents view on
differential parental treatment was taken into account since many previous studies only emphasized differential
maternal treatment (McGuire, Dunn, & Plomin, 1995; McHale & Pawletko, 1992).
It is suggested that future studies may also take into account the gender of siblings as an influential factor in
differential parental treatment, which the earlier study by Poonam and Punia (2012), discovered differential
parental treatment as distinct in opposite sibling sex dyads as compared to similar sex sibling dyad. In addition,
family size and marital satisfaction are also important variable that may affect the differential positivity
portrayed by parents (Jenkins, Rasbash, & O’Connor, 2003). Although previous studies have demonstrated that
parents with more children were less positive towards their children (Kidwell, 1981), however, the relationship
between family size and differential positivity between parents have not really been investigated (Jenkins et al.,
In conclusion, this study found that the birth order of children made a difference in paternal control, with fathers
more controlling towards their first born more than their last born. Findings of this study could be used by school
counselors, parents, psychologist, and teachers in understanding the factors responsible for differential parental
treatment and the steps to educate parents about the impact of their parenting behaviour in the development of
their children.
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... All these findings are consistent with previous findings (Jenkins et al., 2003;Ng et al., 2014;Rohde et al., 2003). Conclusively, on the basis of all the findings, it is suggested that in adolescence, siblings continue to be sensitive to the disparity in their parent's behaviour (affection and control) towards their offspring and that sharing parental resources of love and attention may give rise to rivalry and conflict among siblings. ...
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One of the core tasks for parents is maintaining their children’ optimal functioning and mental health. The differential perception of siblings depending on their birth oder appears to be a precursor of their future well-being. The purpose of the study is to present theoretical and empirical analysis of the differences in parental treatment of the children of different birth order. Thirty married couples with children completed questionnaires to measure the specific features of their parental characteristics. The study covers theoretical and empirical analysis of the modern scientific approaches and theories concerning parental attitude towards siblings. Statistic analysis was held using IBM SPSS Statistics 20. The findings of the study revealed that parents of “the only child” tend to have higher level of attachment, control, demands, anxiety and inconsistency in upbringing comparing to the other sibling position of the “younger” child. The parents of the only child are more satisfied with their parent-child relationships. The investigation of the differences in attitude towards senior siblings proved parents to be more cooperative, demanding, inconsistent and rigorous. They provide children with higher level of autonomy psychological distance. The younger siblings are less controlled, demanded and independent. The study summarizes significant differences of parental treatment towards children of different birth order. It highlighted the importance of early significant relationships in shaping human being’s personality.
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Using sibling data from the German Life History Study and fixed-effects models, I find that birth order has a strong negative effect on educational attainment in West Germany—being born later translates to less education. The strength of the birth order effect is comparable to those of many commonly used family background indicators. This finding contrasts many sceptical accounts of birth order found in the sociological and psychological literatures. The results of this study also show the sensitivity of birth order estimates to model specification, pointing to a likely cause for conflicting results in the previous literature. Birth order effects are weaker for females and in larger families, but do not vary according to families’ socioeconomic characteristics. The effects are likewise strong at transition from compulsory school to Gymnasium, but not significant on the transition from Gymnasium to university. Overall, the results do not support theories emphasizing the dilution of socioeconomic resources, nor do they support theories on age-crossovers in birth order effects at around age 11. However, the dilution of other family resources such as parental time and attention is a possible candidate. The weaker birth order effects among females can reflect the traditionally gender unequal returns to education, in which intellectual and school performance advantages to lower birth order do not translate into better educational attainment among German women. Overall, these findings underline the importance of birth order in shaping socioeconomic achievement and, more generally, of the factors that affect the experiences and inequalities of children growing up in the same family.
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Fueled by new evidence, there has been renewed interest about the effects of birth order on human capital accumulation. The underlying causal mechanisms for such effects remain unsettled. We consider a model in which parents impose more stringent disciplinary environments in response to their earlier-born children’s poor performance in school in order to deter such outcomes for their later-born offspring. We provide robust empirical evidence that school performance of children in the National Longitudinal Study Children (NLSY-C) declines with birth order as does the stringency of their parents’ disciplinary restrictions. When asked how they will respond if a child brought home bad grades, parents state that they would be less likely to punish their later-born children. Taken together, these patterns are consistent with a reputation model of strategic parenting.
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Interest on the e¤ects of birth order on human capital accumulation has recently re-emerged. The debate about its existence seems to be settled, but identi…cation of the main mechanisms remains somewhat elusive. The latest research has rediscovered the importance of dilution theory. We advance a complementary economic hypothesis regarding the causal mechanisms underlying birth order e¤ects in education. In partic-ular, we entertain theories of di¤erential discipline in which those who are born later face more lenient disciplinary environments. In such contexts, the later born sibling will be likely to exert lower school e¤ort, thus reaching lower performance levels. We provide robust empirical evidence on substantial attenuation parental restrictions for those with higher birth order (born later). We conjecture this may arise as a result of parental reputation dynamics We thank helpful comments from participants at the UCLA Proseminar in I.O., the UCLA Proseminar in Applied Microeconomics, the California Center for Population Research, the 2008 PAA meetings in New Orleans, the 2008 SOLE meetings in New York City and seminars at Washington University in St. Louis and Duke University. All errors remain ours.
The equity heuristic is a decision rule specifying that parents should attempt to subdivide resources more or less equally among their children. This investment rule coincides with the prescription from optimality models in economics and biology in cases in which expected future return for each offspring is equal. In this article, the authors present a counterintuitive implication of the equity heuristic: Whereas an equity motive produces a fair distribution at any given point in time, it yields a cumulative distribution of investments that is unequal. The authors test this analytical observation against evidence reported in studies exploring parental investment and show how the equity heuristic can provide an explanation of why the literature reports a diversity of birth order effects with respect to parental resource allocation.
Despite a powerful social norm that parents should treat offspring equally, beginning in early childhood and continuing through adulthood, parents often differentiate among their children in such domains as affection, privileges, and discipline. The current study examined whether parental and contextual risk factors contribute to mothers and fathers’ differential treatment when accounting for sibling dyad characteristics in five domains (privileges, chores, affection, discipline, and temporal involvement). One hundred and twenty families with equal number of the four sibling sex constellations (girl-boy, boy-boy, girl-girl and boy-girl) were studied. Even where equal treatment was normative a substantial proportion of parents reported differential treatment. Children’s reports about the parental differential treatment were taken through a standardized scale. Parental differential treatment was more in opposite sibling sex dyads as compared to same sibling sex dyads. Parents favoured more to older siblings in domains of privileges and allocation of household chores. Parents favoured younger siblings in domains of affection and temporal involvement. Mothers were more differential in treatment as compared to fathers. Paternal differential treatment was seen in temporal involvement as fathers spend more time with sons than daughters. Parental differential treatment patterns were significantly related to parental and contextual variables.
Investigated 6 personality variables for birth order differences in 339 male and 447 female and 210 male and 266 female undergraduates. Ss in the former were studied for dogmatism, ambiguity tolerance, and rigidity. Measures of (a) internal-external locus of control, and (b) social responsibility were administered to the latter. Both samples were given the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale. Data were analyzed in 2 * 3 factorial analysis of variance design: 2 levels of sex and 3 levels of birth order (only child, 1st born, and later born). It was found that (a) later borns from 2-child families were more external than those from larger families; (b) later borns from 2-child families were more external than only children or 1st borns from 2-child families; (c) only children and 1st borns were more socially responsible than later borns; (d) 1st borns were more rigid than only-child and later-born Ss; and (e) only-female Ss manifested higher need for approval than only males. (26 ref.) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved).
This study examines the effect of the sibling structures of number and spacing, sex composition, and birth order on adolescents' perceptions of the power and support dimensions of parental behavior. These sibling structures are conceptualized as dimensions on a hypothetical sibling time line, including number of siblings and the way in which they are arranged in time, i.e., the spacing and birth order. Data were obtained from a secondary analysis of a national sample of over 1,700 adolescent males. The results suggest that research focusing on birth order as an explanatory variable must control for number of siblings, spacing, and sex composition of siblings; studies examining family size must control for sibling spacing, birth order, and sex composition. In addition a curvilinear relationship was found between perceived parent behaviors and wider spacing between siblings. The "best" spacings are the widest (five years) and the narrowest (one year or less), with spacings of two and three years being the most negative. Most of the power in the curvilinear relationship obtains with male respondents whose closest sibling is male. Males whose closest sibling is female, however, view their parents as more punitive. Both empirical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.
Why are individuals from the same family often no more similar in personality than those from different families? Why, within the same family, do some children conform to authority whereas others rebel? The family, it turns out, is not a "shared environment" but rather a set of niches that provide siblings with different outlooks. At the heart of this pioneering inquiry into human development is a fundamental insight: that the personalities of siblings vary because they adopt different strategies in the universal quest for parental favor. Frank J. Sulloway's most important finding is that eldest children identify with parents and authority, and support the status quo, whereas younger children rebel against it. Drawing on the work of Darwin and the new science of evolutionary psychology, he transforms our understanding of personality development and its origins in family dynamics.