Quality Time Seems Stacked In Favor of Firstborns

Lopsided Time Log Favors Firstborns
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

When her eldest child was in kindergarten, Laura Haggerty-Lacalle sat down with her every day to review reading or math, intent on providing that most precious commodity of all: parent time. "Oh my God, it's the most important thing you can do," she said.

But when her second child hit the same age, life was more hectic. Now, with a third child, Haggerty-Lacalle, 37, feels good when she gets five minutes to stack blocks or build Legos in her Oak Hill home. "When you have three kids," she says, "you're just trying to survive."

Within this familiar progression of family life, new research has confirmed what some parents recognize and others quietly fear: Their firstborn children get more of their time than others in the family -- on average, 3,000 extra "quality" hours from ages 4 to 13, when sisters and brothers are in the picture.

That's 25 extra minutes a day with mothers on average and 20 extra minutes a day with fathers across a nine-year span of childhood, according to a study by economist Joseph Price of Brigham Young University.

Some parents find themselves surprised by the lopsided time log, but the big question, experts say, is whether this difference helps explain findings that show firstborn children get better test scores, more education and higher-paying jobs.

"I certainly think it advances our understanding," said Sandra Black, an economist at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has studied birth order and achievement. Although the reasons for firstborns' success have not been fully explored, she said, the study provides one plausible explanation.

Based on federal data from more than 15,000 children whose days were detailed as part of the American Time Use Survey, the study defines quality time with parents as minutes spent together on such activities as homework, meals, reading, playtime, sports, teaching, arts, religion and conversation. In all categories, firstborns got more, according to the study, published in the Journal of Human Resources.

This was not because of any lack of fair-mindedness, Price said, but rather because of an underlying fact of family life: Parents generally spend equal time with their children on any given day, but they spend less time with their children as the family ages. For example, mothers in two-child families spend 136 minutes a day with their firstborns at age 7. But by the time the secondborn reaches that age, mothers spend 114 minutes.

These daily differences become a wide gap as the years pass.

"I think if you told parents that they spend more time with their firstborn, some might say, 'Okay,' but many would be shocked because there is this feeling that you treat your children equally," said sociologist Suzanne Bianchi of the University of Maryland.

Parents often do not recognize the imbalance, Price said, because day-to-day they are fairly equal about their time. "On any given day, you're more likely to spend a little more time with the second child," he said. "But it's still not nearly as much time as you spent with the firstborn when he was that same age."

Many parents said the time gap was not true for their families. To others, the findings fall in line with the rhythms of family life. Their firstborns led the way in family choices about schools, sports, music lessons and family rules. Every milestone was new.

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